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Tim Benz: What the advanced stat critics are missing about Penguins’ Jack Johnson

July 5, 2018 GMT

Here’s one for the “there are lies, damned lies and statistics” crowd.

Don’t get defensive, stat nerds. This won’t be a hatchet job on the analytics community. There’s plenty of good to be found in hockey analytics. The influx of hockey numbers information has helped analyze the game from scouting, fan and media perspectives.

The bad, however, comes from picking and choosing specific numbers to fully define a player as being good or bad without telling the full story.

Newly acquired Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson has fallen victim to that practice by some who are bashing his signing.

On Sunday, the former Columbus Blue Jacket officially inked a five-year contract worth $16.25 million.

Like many critics of the deal, I would have preferred the term be shorter and cap hit lower. But I’m less concerned about those things than some seem to be. I am also more optimistic than most that Johnson will bounce back from a bad season and play better once he joins the Penguins and plays with more skilled players.

Most of those analytics say I’m wrong. Everything from his surface-level stats to his more advanced numbers insist Johnson is on a downward arc.

Johnson’s 11 points last season were the fewest for a full season since his rookie year. His minutes dipped below 20 per game (19:33) for the first time in his career. He has been a minus player for all but one of his 12 years. And as NBC Sports points out, his 47.9 Corsi is 204th out of 259 defenders over the past five years.

Yet for all the attention those bad numbers have received, here’s a good one few people have mentioned: Last year, Johnson was one of the NHL’s best defensemen at passing out of the defensive zone.

According to Mike Kelly of the NHL Network , among defensemen who logged at least 1,000 even-strength minutes, only five were better at completing an outlet pass from their defensive zone and into the neutral zone: 73.5 percent of the time.

That’s a talent that is particularly valued by Penguins management because they covet defensemen who move the puck with accuracy to their fast, skilled forwards. Columbus’ depth of talent up front can’t match what is present in Pittsburgh.

“It’s certainly going to help him with the forwards that he plays with,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said Sunday. “You go back to the two years we won the Cup, and we had a tremendous transition game. In that transition game, you have to have defensemen that can move the puck.”

Rutherford said he buys into those outlet pass numbers. He also claims old-fashioned scouting supports what the numbers reflect.

“We look at the numbers. But we talk to the guys that see him all the time,” Rutherford said. “And we talked to the coaches who really study his videos. We think he’s going to make a difference.”

Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz are two other offensively oriented defensemen acquired who enjoyed a career renaissance playing in the Penguins system. In theory, not only will Johnson’s passing ability be augmented working with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, but Johnson’s shortcomings also will also be minimized.

If the Penguins are going to be better getting out of the zone with Johnson on the ice, one would think those forwards would be carrying the puck to the offensive end, thus making Johnson less susceptible to defending against shots in his end.

“Getting the puck out of our zone as quickly as possible is part of playing defense,” Johnson said Sunday. “The less time we spend down there, the better. Being able to get it to world-class players makes my job a little easier and a lot more fun.”

Rutherford pointed to former defenseman and assistant coach Sergei Gonchar as a guy who has helped the likes of Schultz and Daley in the past and inferred he could help Johnson as well.

“I’ll always put my money on Sergei Gonchar. He’s a real special person when it comes to one-on-one (instruction) with these guys,” beamed Rutherford.

There’s a lot to fix about Johnson’s game. Getting benched throughout the playoffs in Columbus makes that clear. But if we are going to use the numbers to make that case, let’s also use the numbers that show he has a unique skill that may play especially well in this new environment.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.