Much-maligned Jack Johnson just didn't do enough for Penguins
The noise was deafening Monday afternoon. Penguins fans were celebrating everywhere, best I could tell. At first, I thought it was a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Sidney Crosby’s first NHL game. Then, I figured it had to be in honor of Mario Lemieux’s 55th birthday. But I was wrong on both fronts. The party had nothing to do with Crosby’s debut or Lemieux’s birthday. It had everything to do with Jack Johnson’s release.
My ears still are ringing from the cheers and applause.
Has there ever been a more-criticized Pittsburgh athlete than Johnson? I can’t think of one, at least not since the emergence of social media. Much of the criticism was fair. Johnson’s two seasons with the Penguins hardly were good, and the team quickly was eliminated from the playoffs each year. But some of the criticism — especially that which was vicious, over the top and an embarrassment to the city — was unfair. Johnson wasn’t just a stiff collecting a big paycheck. He did some things to help the team as a shot blocker, a penalty killer and a physical presence. He just didn’t do enough.
Johnson, a former Michigan standout, wasn’t as good as the Penguins needed him to be and he wasn’t as bad as his haters said he was.
Jim Rutherford is a Hall of Fame general manager who helped construct two Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Penguins. But he took a lot of heat from the moment in July 2018 that he signed Johnson to a five-year, $16.25 million contract. Critics didn’t like the length or cost. Johnson’s analytics with the Columbus Blue Jackets were atrocious. He had the worst overall plus/minus in the NHL since his rookie season in 2006-07. He was a healthy scratch for the Blue Jackets’ playoff series against the Washington Capitals right before he got here.
Rutherford went out of his way to defend Johnson as the criticism increased during Johnson’s first season with the Penguins. “He has never been given a chance here right from the start,” Rutherford said in February 2019. “I don’t understand it. It’s been extremely unfair to him. Extremely. He’s a good player. I think he’s doing fine. I think he’s doing perfectly fine.”
Johnson played in every regular season game in 2018-19 but was scratched by Mike Sullivan for Game 1 of the playoff series against the New York Islanders. Johnson returned to the lineup for the final three games of that sweep by the Islanders, but the message with clear: Sullivan wasn’t nearly as high on Johnson as his general manager was.
Rutherford often became agitated and confrontational when asked about Johnson’s play. He continued to defend Johnson even after Johnson’s performance stats weren’t good in the 2019-20 season and the Penguins were eliminated by the 24th- and worst-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Johnson was on the ice for five of Montreal’s 10 goals and finished a minus-4, but Rutherford put more blame on Johnson’s defensive partner, Justin Schultz. “I know everybody picks on Jack and they have for a long time, but I think, in that pairing, Justin Schultz had a lot more to give.”
Just when it appeared Penguins fans would have Johnson to kick around for another season, Rutherford traded fan favorite Patric Hornqvist to Florida for younger defenseman Mike Matheson on Sept. 24. That gave the team three left-shot defensemen — Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson and Matheson, who can play the speed game that Sullivan prefers. Suddenly, there was no spot for the plodding Johnson. “We are still working through what we’re going to do with Jack,” Rutherford told The Athletic last week. “Matheson being here changes things for Jack.”
The solution, as it turned out, was to buy out the final three years of Johnson’s contract even though the Penguins generally don’t like to buy out players. In this case, it provides the team with at least a bit of salary-cap relief. It also ends one of the more scrutinized runs in town by a Pittsburgh athlete.
This is the best thing that could have happened to Johnson. He will get a fresh start with a new team. His next stop will be better than this one, both professionally and certainly personally. It can’t possibly be worse.