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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Defenseman reclamation projects are Penguins' specialty

| Saturday, June 30, 2018, 4:45 p.m.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, March 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, March 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Jack Johnson hadn't even signed his contract, and Penguins fans on Twitter were wondering when it could be bought out.

Welcome to Pittsburgh.

Johnson's reported five-year deal might be a year too long, but the Penguins' window will be shut by then anyway.

The price is right at $3.25 million per season. That's the going rate for a defenseman of Johnson's ability, pedigree and age (31).

The Penguins won't ask Johnson to be Kris Letang, or even Letang's partner. They need Johnson to be Ron Hainsey or Ben Lovejoy or Trevor Daley: A defenseman coming off a pedestrian recent past who gets resuscitated by the surroundings and opportunity.

The Penguins also need Johnson to not be Matt Hunwick. Please, God, no.

Assistant coach Sergei Gonchar should help Johnson. He's certainly aided retreads like Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak with helpful one-on-one instruction.

Is Johnson next in that lineage?

The Penguins have specialized in blue-line reclamation projects. Gonchar is what Pirates' pitching coach Ray Searage is supposed to be.

Johnson is Sidney Crosby's buddy from prep school, but that's not why the Penguins signed him.

Johnson's fancy stats stink, but that wasn't enough reason for the Penguins to take a pass.

Analytics can't be transferred exactly from one team to another or one system to another.

It's the GM's job to figure how a player fits, and Jim Rutherford has a good track record in that regard.

Johnson was rotten this past season: just 11 points, minus-6 and a healthy scratch in Columbus' first-round playoff loss to Washington.

He was great in 2016-17: 32 points and plus-23. He's been a top-four defenseman most of his career. Which Jack Johnson will show up in Pittsburgh?

Hopefully, it's a version that can be a solid bottom-pair defenseman, because that's all the Penguins need him to be.

To be sure, Johnson offers options beyond that.

If the Penguins are serious about cutting Letang's minutes, it might behoove them to pair Johnson with Schultz, Olli Maatta with Oleksiak and Letang with Brian Dumoulin.

Letang and Dumoulin would be the No. 1 duo, but the other tandems would be balanced enough that coach Mike Sullivan could roll six defensemen and have solid quality and pairing throughout. It's safe to bet Johnson has been promised a shot at that.

If Sullivan would prefer to lean on his top four, he can put Maatta with Schultz and use Johnson and Oleksiak as a very competitive bottom pair.

Johnson's physicality and tangible desire were big selling points for the Penguins. Both might come in handy when the Penguins and Washington meet in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive spring.

Those needs might also be reflected in the Penguins' hunt for a depth forward.

Johnson blocks shots and manages the puck OK. His gap and defensive positioning might need a little polish. But playing for a legit contender instead of a one-and-done specialist might go a long way in that regard, as will playing for a coach who isn't a maniac lurching toward his expiration date.

Bottom-pair defensemen and fourth-line forwards are mostly incidental. Johnson won't be a standout nor will he hurt.

Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel were hardly scintillating as the bottom pair in this past season's playoffs. But they weren't the reason the Penguins were eliminated by the Capitals.

This is a somewhat complicated version of a column on Johnson's signing.

Many just typed one paragraph: “The Penguins are making a mistake,” followed by a listing of available free agents the Penguins weren't interested in or going to get. Below that, graph upon graph of somebody else's fancy stats, color-coded for your convenience.

That's an easier column to prepare.

But those writers don't get paid much, if at all.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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