Jack Johnson is not divisive. To be divisive, some kind of meaningful status must be the subject of debate. Johnson is neither a marginal player who is trying to justify his ice time nor a superstar with MVP credentials under the microscope. For many NHL fans, he represents an average first-pairing defender despite his having been drafted third—after Sidney Crosby and Bobby Ryan—by the Hurricanes in the 2005 draft.
Followers of fancystats are similarly unanimous in their opinion that Johnson is the most obviously overrated player in hockey. Their confidence in this belief comes from one of the analytics movement’s biggest triumphs: predicting the Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup run after their late February trade of Johnson and a ’13 first round pick to the Blue Jackets for center Jeff Carter. Johnson had always been, according to the numbers, one of the worst defensemen in the league, someone who hemorrhaged shots against his own team. Carter, despite his bum rap for underachieving with Columbus, drove puck possession. The stat guys declared the swap of the two to be the most lopsided trade in recent memory. L.A.'s subsequent Cup—and the way the Kings won it (outshooting opponents by huge margins)—validated this analysis.
The opinions of Johnson and his game came to the fore during last year's Winter Olympics. Johnson—a key contributor on the U.S. team that won Olympic silver in Vancouver in 2010, and the U.S. captain three years later at the IIHF World Championship—was surprisingly left at home for the trip to Sochi. Thanks to the unprecedented access given to ESPN's Scott Burnside and USA Today's Kevin Allen during Team USA’s roster-building process, it became public knowledge that Johnson had not been left off the team because he had always been a statistical nightmare. Instead, he was passed over because of his bad start to the 2013–14 season. Johnson's rough patch was challenging the confidence of a bunch of GMs who thought him to be, fundamentally, a good player:
[Brian] Burke goes to bat for the defenseman.
Tracking is great, Burke says. But it “totally disregards a body of work. At some point, a player’s body of work outweighs how he’s tracking, unless he's flat out dreadful,” he says.
It’s not that Johnson is considered “Captain America,” but the group knows the compete level they’ll get from him, and it’s clear there is some difficulty in letting go of a player about whom so much was both thought and assumed from the outset.
“This kid’s a damn good player,” says L.A. GM Dean Lombardi, who acquired Johnson from Carolina before dealing him to Columbus for Jeff Carter.
“It's not even close for me on whether this kid should be in our top five,” he says. “No question.”
Nobody had the heart to cut the guy until Stan Bowman, the ultra-successful Blackhawks GM and a known proponent of advanced statistics, put his foot down. Bowman’s argument reaffirmed the fancystat consensus on Johnson:
Stan Bowman helps to crystallize the back story to the ongoing and often circular debate over the defensive makeup of the team.
Bowman believes the strength of the team is in goal and up front. The blue line stands as a potential weakness and to play to their strengths he figures they need guys who can move the puck to the strong group of forwards. In that light, he suggests avoiding both Johnsons. [The Avalanche's Erik Johnson was the other.]
So what's the truth, here? Do the many GMs who like the Blue Jackets defenseman, including fancystat-darlings Jarmo Kekäläinen and Dean Lombardi, see something that the numbers don’t account for?
There's no mystery about Johnson’s flaws . He’s a great athlete who lacked polish as a prospect: he often found himself out of position, standing still on key plays; he made bad first passes. Nine seasons into his career, these faults persist. All I want to advance in this column is a unifying theory for why this is, and why no amount of athleticism or NHL experience will ever change it: Jack Johnson has no spatial contextual awareness.
Hockey is played at high speeds, with multiple people, all of whom have unique traits, moving in different directions. The ability to quickly recognize which players are where, what they can do, and where they will be, is the fundamental skill of the modern game. This was the great gift of Wayne Gretzky, the hallmark of the legendary Red Army teams, the thing that separates Crosby from a handful of equally-skilled and physically more impressive peers.
Would you believe me if I told you that Johnson is no Gretzky? I watched the Blue Jackets’ 4–2 loss to the Hurricanes on Wednesday. I really wanted to like Johnson. He pinches in the offensive zone with good speed. He can shoot. He isn't afraid to play the man on defense. But too many times I found myself yelling, “What are you doing?!” Johnson does all the right things, but at all the wrong times.
Like, come on, man ...
Here’s another especially telling turnover (and this one actually led to a goal). Johnson took a pass in neutral ice on a power-play zone entry. But notice, during the camera close-up before the turnover, how his head is down:
The entire time I was keyed in on Johnson, he seemed to be very deliberately looking. He would crane his head and look at the guy behind him, then look down at his stick to receive the puck, then look up to the next guy to whom he wanted to pass. He did not have his “head “on a swivel,” as the hockey cognoscenti like to say. If Johnson were a quarterback, he would make one read, then stare at his receiver for four whole seconds before throwing an interception.
Johnson’s shortcomings are such that they even have me empathizing with him for the three-game suspension he got from the NHL for a hit he laid on Jiri Tlusty in this game. He probably read the play too slowly to realize that Tlusty was defenseless at the moment of impact.
Then there were the times that Johnson had the right idea, but his passes were less than crisp:
It occurred to me at this point that Johnson is basically the anti-Crosby. The superpowers of the Penguins' captain include high-speed computing and a chess master's awareness of the ice. Crosby is Deep Blue. Jack Johnson is that calculator you had in grade school that ran on a tiny solar panel.
So I turned off the miserable ’Canes game and looked up the Jackets’' record against Pittsburgh last season. Imagine my surprise when I saw Columbus had gone 0–5 against their Metro division rival before also getting bounced by them in the first round of the playoffs, four games to two.
I call the following GIF montage “Sidney Crosby Realizing Things Before Jack Johnson Does.” Every play resulted in a Penguins goal.
Sidney Crosby realizing Chris Kunitz is wide-open in front of the net before Jack Johnson does:
Sidney Crosby realizing where James Neal is (on two separate occasions) before Jack Johnson does:
Sidney Crosby realizing Sidney Crosby is open before Jack Johnson does:
I know, I know—there's no shame in getting schooled by Crosby on the power play. There is shame, however, in allowing Kunitz two point-blank shots in front of your net before you clear the crease.
Defensemen develop at a slower rate than forwards. The best, most-skilled forwards can play at an elite level as teenagers. D-men rarely reach stardom before their mid-20s. This discrepancy is usually attributed to a defenseman's need to think the game while reading and reacting to it in his own zone. Those thoughts become reflexes for the greats, something that only repetition can teach and instill.
Johnson possesses the physical attributes to be a top-pairing guy. But by Dean Lombardi’s admission, Johnson started way behind his peers in the thinking aspects of the game. I still don't think he has mastered them yet, and, at 27, there’s no guarantee that he ever will.
Physical defensemen who excel on the power play often masquerade as do-it-all guys, and Johnson is the prime example. He needs to be deployed more carefully, or maybe even spend a season at forward, à la Brett Burns. As it is, the Blue Jackets are going to find themselves perennially frustrated by his lapses, like the Kings were before that now-infamous trade.
After all, the way things are tracking, Carolina or the Sabres could end up drafting Connor McDavid next June. He and Crosby would make two forwards in Johnson's division who have pretty decent hockey sense—and who would figure to feast on Johnson’s mistakes for many years to come.