A defense of Jack Johnson: Why player role matters

Reports have been swirling that the Penguins are about to hand out an absurdly long contract to Jack Johnson, formerly of the Columbus Blue Jackets. While I think handing out 5 years to a 31 year old defenseman is a mistake, if it’s going to happen, we should better understand who Jack Johnson is and what he brings.

Defensive Ability

Despite a lot of insistence otherwise and his deployment in Columbus, Jack Johnson is not a defensive defenseman and should not be used as such. Playing for the Blue Jackets, Johnson had terrible advanced stats, almost approaching replacement level. From 2013-2018 cumulatively, he had a relative CF% of -2.52 and a relative xGF% of -0.65. In 2018 alone, arguably the worst year of his career, he had -5.01 relSCF% and a -6.00 relHDCF%.

With a big thank you to @shutdownline (Corey Sznajder) and @CJTDevil (CJ Turtoro), we have some manually tracked zone entry, exit and defense data to work with too. From 2016-2018, through 112 tracked games and 2097 minutes, Jack Johnson ranked in the 39th percentile in defensive breakups per 60, 42nd possession entries allowed per 60 and 48th in possession entry% allowed.

Johnson 1

All in all, these stats show a player who is not a defensive defenseman. Yet, for some baffling reasons, Columbus continued to deploy him in a defensive role, giving him 36.33% of his zone starts in the defensive zone, which would be a higher percentage than Ian Cole (32.56), Dan Hamhuis (34.35) and slightly lower than Ben Lovejoy (36.82). With his compatriots being noted for the defensive prowess, and that Ian Cole took pretty much straight over for Johnson in CBJ, Johnson was getting deployed like a shutdown defenseman. His advanced stats show that it is not a role he excels at, despite Columbus insisting that he continues to play it.

With the help of Corsica.Hockey, we can also look at the penalty killing stats of Jack Johnson compared to several free agents and notable players. Using their relative expected goals against per 60 model, where a lower number is better and negative numbers are great, Jack Johnson has a 1.53 xGA/60, which looks terrible when compared to David Savard (0.42), Brooks Orpik (0.96), Kris Letang (-0.07), Cole (0.31) and John Moore (-0.4).

Some Good News

It is clear that Jack Johnson’s abilities do not lend themselves to great defensive play, and being miscast in that role by Columbus has led to Johnson putting up paltry offensive scoring numbers throughout his career. However, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes Johnson. Referring back to the manually tracked data from @ShutDownLine, Jack Johnson’s ability to move the puck out of his own zone and into the opposing zone is significant. From 2016-2018, Johnson ranked in the 64th percentile in possession entries to the zone per 60 and in the 89th percentile for percentage of possession entries. This was alongside being in the 56th percentile for possession exists from his own zone per 60 and the 68th percentile of possession exit percentage.

Johnson 2

Johnson also possesses a solid amount of passing. Through the 32 game and 561 minutes tracked in the 2017-18 season, Jack Johnson exceeded the league average point in ‘royal road’ passes (which are passes into the slot), stretch passes, low to high passes (that is, from low in the offensive zone to the point) and passes that resulted in one timers. On the diagram below, the vertical line is the league average for that statistic, while the color is the percentile within which Johnson falls for each stat.

Johnson 3

So, what is Jack Johnson?

Despite his weird deployment, there is evidence that Jack Johnson possesses some quality puck moving skills. It would not be considered a leap of logic to assume that Jack Johnson would perform better from a defensive aspect and a point production view if he was deployed in a more sheltered role. Is he necessarily the best person for the Penguins to go and acquire? I don’t think he is. But if he is going to be here, it’s incredibly important that he gets deployed as a puck moving D on the bottom pairing, and not as a partner to Justin Schultz who will PK as has been suggested.

Stats courtesy of Corey Sznajder and Corisca.Hockey, Viz courtesy of CJ Trutoro

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