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Penguins Predictions: How well will Jack Johnson fit in with his new team?

September 8, 2018

The Blue Jackets’ Jack Johnson knocks the Penguins’ Kris Letang to the ice in the first period Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 at Consol Energy Center.

Editor’s note: Beat writer Jonathan Bombulie will make a series of Penguins predictions leading up to the start of training camp Sept. 14.

THE QUESTION

Where will Jack Johnson rank in ice time among the Penguins’ top six defensemen by the end of the season?

MULTIPLE CHOICE

A. Bottom two.

An analytical look at Johnson’s 12-year career indicates this is where he’ll end up. Johnson has never finished a season with a shot-attempt percentage above 50. He’s had a positive plus-minus rating just once. The more minutes coach Mike Sullivan plays Johnson, the more likely he is to revert to those career averages, which won’t be good for the bottom line for the Penguins. On top of that, the Penguins tend to get into trouble when their defensemen get too aggressive. Johnson has been criticized for that sort of behavior, whether to join the offense or look for a big hit, in his past.

B. Middle two.

If a move to the Penguins promotes just a slight improvement in Johnson’s numbers, Sullivan will be comfortable giving him second-pair minutes. Some stats indicate Johnson is one of the better defensemen in the league at making an accurate first pass out of his own zone, which is perhaps the No. 1 attribute the Penguins prize in their defensemen. While Johnson has played on some good teams in his career, he’s never made outlet passes to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin before. There are also parts of Johnson’s game that lend themselves to special teams play. He has the shot to be a weapon on the second power play and the size and physicality to play regularly on the penalty kill. Those minutes will start to add up.

C. Top two.

It’s possible a move to the Penguins will be exactly what Johnson needs to take his game to another level. In Columbus, Johnson was almost always asked to play a shutdown role. Since 2011, only seven NHL players have been on the ice for more defensive-zone faceoffs than Johnson (3,002). Sullivan rarely uses any of his defensemen like that. Last year, Ian Cole led the Penguins in defensive-zone starts with 54.6 percent. If Johnson isn’t asked to play like a stay-at-home defenseman, his numbers might stop looking like a stay-at-home defenseman’s. He’s a physical specimen with five 30-point seasons to his credit. With the shackles off, he could theoretically thrive.

THE PREDICTION

B. Middle two.

It’s not wise to predict Johnson’s game will change radically in his 12th season in the league, but there are enough indications that the Penguins are a better fit for him than the Blue Jackets were to think he, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz will be neck and neck behind Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin on the team’s defenseman usage list. The presence of more high-end forwards than he’s used to should help his transition game a little. Working with assistant coach Sergei Gonchar is bound to polish up a few rough edges. Sullivan won’t bury him in the defensive zone as much as John Tortorella did. A change of scenery should do him good.

Keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

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