Tim Benz: Why it’s OK for the Penguins to sign Jack Johnson |
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Tim Benz: Why it’s OK for the Penguins to sign Jack Johnson

Tim Benz
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Eric Fehr fights for the puck with the Blue Jackets' Jack Johnson in the first period Friday, Feb. 3, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.

It appears the Penguins will be signing former Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson to a contract that may last five or six years and may cost the club roughly $3 million against the salary cap per season .

That’s not going over well with many in the Pittsburgh fans base, or with some who cover the team.

Yeesh! Welcome to town, pal!

Those who are against the move generally say Johnson is on the wrong side of 30. He’s only had one positive plus/minus season. His more advanced analytics are bad, too. He was playing poorly enough that Columbus scratched him throughout the playoffs last year. He’ll be a second left-handed shot on the bottom pair with Jamie Oleksiak. He’s not skilled enough to be an offensive threat. He’s not responsible enough to be a stay-at-home guy. The Penguins only want him because he’s Sidney Crosby’s friend .

To those complaints I simply say: All true! But will he likely be better than Chad Ruhwedel or what they could’ve gotten from Matt Hunwick or Frank Corrado?

Is there a chance his career can be rehabbed playing with better players here much like other recent acquisitions on the blue line such as Oleksiak, Justin Schultz, Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley and Ian Cole?

Given his talent level and previous better play with the Blue Jackets and Kings, I definitely think so.

Does falling out of favor with a crank like Blue Jackets’ coach John Tortorella necessarily make you a bad guy, or a bad player?

Not in my view.

Regarding the gripe that this was just a move to make Crosby happy, so what? Legend has it Johnson once stood up for Crosby in a high school baseball fight where the two of them took on the entire opposing team . Since when is having a guy who will defend the captain a bad thing?

Frankly, maybe this is more about general manager Jim Rutherford wanting Jack Johnson on his team than it is about Crosby. Remember, it was “GMJR” who first drafted Johnson in 2005 before Johnson decided to play in college.

For those who are hung up on Johnson’s plus/minus, keep in mind that in 2016 he was a plus-23. For those who think his offensive skills were never good enough to rediscover anyway, Johnson has four seasons of 35 or more points in the NHL. As Schultz is valued, he has just one.

As far as being paired with Oleksiak, some think Oleksiak is better on his off-side anyway. Plus, there is a belief Johnson may get paired with Schultz to begin the year.

I’m not wild about the amount of money or the term either. That bothers me more than who Johnson is — or isn’t — as a player. I’m certainly hoping that, when the deal is officially announced (perhaps Sunday or Monday), it’ll be for fewer years and less money than that.

Even if it isn’t, I’m still OK with the signing. That contract isn’t as cumbersome as some are making it out to be.

The Penguins carried Hunwick’s dead weight of a deal last year, and they still absorbed Derick Brassard’s and Riley Sheahan’s during the season. This deal will only be about $1 million more. Furthermore, as opposed to Hunwick, Johnson may actually see the ice on occasion.

If needed, there are creative ways to get around bad contracts. Look at how Rutherford spun Hunwick to Buffalo, or how Washington got out from under Brooks Orpik’s contract via Colorado .

Failing options like those, just buy him out after a year or two. With annual cap increases, the dead money of a $3 million contract won’t be as onerous as projections are having us fear.

Instead of asking so many questions as to why the Penguins made this move, maybe critics of the signing should try to answer one: who else?

Seriously. Who else?

The “who else” last year to replace Hainsey was Hunwick. When it comes to capable defensemen that hit free agency, there aren’t many. Good two-way blueliners are such a commodity, they almost never get to unrestricted status.

So give me a name. Give me free agent left-handed defenseman, under 31 years of age, who will accept a contract of under five years at less than $3 million per season.

Then tell me why that player has a higher upside and fewer warts than Johnson.

Or, give me a trade partner willing to part with such a player who is younger and cheaper, yet willing to take on the salary of a departing Penguin such as Carl Hagelin or Derick Brassard in return.

When you find that player, let me know. I’ll be over here feeding my Black and Gold unicorn.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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