On Feb. 23, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Philadelphia Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, as part of the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. Toward the end of the first period, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds (who has since been traded to the Nashville Predators) leveled Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin with a high hit and he immediately went down holding his head.
In the ensuing scrum, Kris Letang (who had been having arguably the best season of his career) got into a wrestling match with Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and was also injured. In a matter of two minutes, it appeared the Penguins’ season might be over. To further sadden the situation, the Penguins would blow a late third-period lead and eventually lose 4-3 in overtime.
Already without Olli Maatta, they were now down three of their top four blueliners and hardly holding onto a playoff spot. The next game, Chad Ruhwedel was injured. At the 2019 Trade Deadline, general manager Jim Rutherford traded for Erik Gudbranson – a move that was celebrated by Vancouver Canucks fans and despised by most of the Pittsburgh faithful. While he has been adequate in his four games with the Penguins (one assist, plus-three rating), he isn’t the only guy who has picked up his game since the key injuries to the defensive core.
Jack Johnson, who Rutherford signed to a controversial five-year, $16.25 million contract this past offseason, started the season rough, but ever since the Penguins’ loss to the Flyers, he has been fantastic in a more prominent role.
More Ice Time Has Meant More Success
With a completely healthy defensive core, Johnson fits in as someone who rounds out the third defensive pairing and can be utilized heavily on the penalty kill. At 32 years old, he doesn’t offer much offensively, but on a roster that consists of Letang, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, that’s not a huge problem.
In the the first 30 games of the season, Johnson had less than 20 minutes of time on ice in 21 of them, which led to a minus-11 rating (although he did score his only goal of the season in that span). For some players, the more ice time they receive, the better they play. It’s easier to get into the flow of the game when you are constantly hopping the boards instead of riding the bench.
In Johnson’s last six games, he has averaged nearly 24 minutes and has been exceptional on both ends of the ice. During the same stretch, the Indianapolis, Indiana native has a plus-four rating and has transformed from a liability into a shutdown defenseman. Often the scapegoat for whenever anything goes wrong, Johnson has stepped his game up to another level and is carrying a depleted defensive unit into postseason relevancy.
Penguins Fans Need to Embrace Johnson
Hockey aside, the story of Johnson’s financial disaster when he was with the Columbus Blue Jackets is something that Penguins fans need to educate themselves on. From former ESPN writer Scott Burnside:
Documents also obtained by ESPN.com and information provided by those who are familiar with the Johnson situation confirm Portzline’s meticulous outline of a young player whose own parents led him to financial ruin.
Johnson filed for bankruptcy, and documents allege that his mother Tina Johnson borrowed at least $15 million against her son’s future earnings and that Jack Johnson’s current worth is less than $50,000 with debt exceeding $10 million, according to the report.
The story is a tragic one. Johnson surrendered his power of attorney to his mother, who then completely bankrupted him. While Penguins fans were mostly upset when he was signed to a five-year deal, they need to understand that this is a new lease on life for him. It gives him a chance to rebuild his life financially and reconnect with a new fan base.
Now that Johnson has found his stride in Pittsburgh, he needs to be supported, not completely demonized every time he turns the puck over. It seems like whenever he is on the ice and the Penguins get scored on, fans will find a way to make it Johnson’s fault, even if he was nowhere near the play. If fans can support Johnson the way they do most of their superstars, he can continue to grow in the Penguins system.
With Letang and Maatta still yet to return to the lineup, head coach Mike Sullivan is going to look at Johnson to continue to play a bigger role. With only seven points separating first and fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, every game from now until the end of the season is crucial. Johnson struggled early on as he adjusted to playing under coach Sullivan, but is now a key reason why the Penguins currently find themselves in the postseason picture.