If Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was any indication, we should be in for a wonderful series. There is star power in every direction, some of the great players in the game going head to head.
Somewhere in the background is the guy that so much of Pittsburgh loves to hate, looking for his first Stanley Cup ring in what could be his final NHL season.
Jack Johnson’s career has been something to see.
Third overall pick, promising first few seasons, parents steal millions from him, play declines. John Tortorella famously benches him, Penguins give him an outrageous contract, the analytics community’s collective head explodes, war of words between Jim Rutherford and Tortorella becomes the stuff of legend. The Penguins eventually buy him out, still getting contracts, and might win the Cup.
Yeah, it’s been quite the wild ride.
When you think of the Avalanche, you think of the league’s fastest and most talented team. The Avs are young and dynamic, the fresh faces who propel a juggernaut, the NHL’s closest thing to must-see TV. It’s as though the hockey gods crafted the Avs themselves to make hockey a better and more popular game. Speed and talent sells, and they’re oozing with both.
Johnson, of course, doesn’t seem to fit in. He’s slow at this stage of his career. He would appear, on the surface, to be an anti-Avalanche kind of player. Given how Joe Sakic has built his team, he remains curious that he signed Johnson in the first place.
Because of an injury to Samuel Girard, however, Johnson has been called into duty following what was a reasonably effective regular season. He hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t been a disaster, either. And he’s three games away from having his name etched onto the Stanley Cup.
What a staggering moment it would be to see Johnson skating around the ice with the Cup in his hands.
This all brings me back to Johnson’s time in Pittsburgh and how curious it was, then and now.
The Penguins gave Johnson a five-year contract worth more than $16 million. They were under absolutely no obligation to do so. There was not a frantic bidding war for Johnson’s services. He was viewed around the league as a declining, aging player whose underlying numbers would undermine a team’s championship hopes more than augment them.
No other team was offering anything in the neighborhood of five years to Johnson. Then, along came Rutherford and the Penguins.
I’ve spoken with Rutherford at length about the infamous contract. To this day, he doesn’t regret it and doesn’t hold Johnson responsible for any of the Penguins’ troubles during his two seasons in Pittsburgh.
“He could still play,” Rutherford told me when we last spoke of the Johnson deal. “Could still kill penalties and help a team win. And he’s such a character man.”
That last point probably explains everything.
You must recall that he was Rutherford who drafted Johnson when he was the Carolina general manager in 2005. Even then, Rutherford had a soft spot for Johnson. Everyone does.
Fans don’t typically care about which players are “nice guys” and which players are jerks. Fans care about who performs well and if their team is winning games. This is all perfectly logical, especially as those who follow the game have methodically become more analytical in their thinking. This typically removes emotion from the equation and focuses on the hard facts.
Incidentally, the hard facts tell us that Johnson never really lived up to the billing as the third overall pick, two spots behind Sidney Crosby, 17 years ago. He hasn’t had a bad career by any stretch, but even the staunchest of analytic followers will tell you that Johnson has been a minus player in 13 of his 16 NHL seasons (and they hate that statistic). His play has badly faded in the past five seasons. Johnson just doesn’t have the wheels for today’s game. In the 80s, given his size, he probably would have been a very good player. But this isn’t the 80s. The game is different now.
So, why on earth did Rutherford give Johnson a five-year deal? It seemed like madness then, as it does now. The Penguins are still paying for it for a couple of more years, in fact. Buying out a contract isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Character man, that’s why. Fans don’t get to know players. Executives like Rutherford do.
I truly believe that Rutherford felt like he was being something of a father figure to Johnson. Rutherford is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and for good reason. He surely was aware that other teams weren’t knocking down Johnson’s door with long-term offers.
My belief is that Rutherford wanted to set him up for life, to make sure he was taken care of. It’s not every day that a professional athlete loses most of his money to his parents. The whole story was once chronicled brilliantly by my colleague, Aaron Portzline.
Johnson, upon telling Rutherford that he understood he wasn’t a good enough player to receive a no-trade clause, asked that he be given advance notice if he were to be traded to a team where taxes were particularly high, like San Jose or a Canadian market. That’s how aware of finances he had become because of what happened to him.
Penguins fans, especially on social media, were particularly vicious toward Johnson following this signing. Every mistake was pinpointed and accompanied by miffed tweets. Some lowly members of the fan base would actively hope for Johnson to sustain an injury so that other players would be forced into the lineup. This prompted a couple of backlashes over the years from Rutherford — he was in a particular rage the day before the Penguins played in an outdoor game in Philadelphia in 2019 — who was very aware of how Johnson was being treated.
Johnson, according to many who are close to him, is impervious to the nastiness in his direction. He doesn’t have a social media account and isn’t interested in having one. His friends and family are very much aware of the treatment, however, and are extremely sensitive to it. To them, Johnson has been through hell already. Through it all, he continues to be a wonderful human being, a loving husband, a proud father, and a locker room presence that is second to none.
Everyone who knows him loves him. When you’re around him, you immediately sense a warmth, a harmlessness.
In the end, those who criticized the contract and who criticized Johnson’s performance have two legs to stand on. He hasn’t been a good NHL player for a long time. The contract, under any objective analysis, was the worst one the Penguins have given a player in their history.
By every account, however, he’s always been a good man, displaying nothing but grace despite losing millions of dollars to his parents. How many people could still show grace in the midst of those circumstances? How many of us would choose bitterness instead?
Here’s hoping that Johnson, a very good person if ever I’ve met one, gets his skate with the Cup in a week or two.
When it’s over, perhaps he walks away from the game and everyone stops talking about him. My grandma always used to tell me, “Josh, if you’re right about something, you don’t need to repeat it over and over. People will know.”
This is what I always want to say to so many people who have wasted so many breaths complaining about Johnson. It wasn’t a good signing. He’s a below-average player.
We know Johnson isn’t a great player. But sometimes the good guy gets the Cup. The guy has been through a hell that we really can’t imagine. It would be nice seeing him receive the heavenly rush that only the Cup can give a hockey player, and then walk away to his family and friends, the people who appreciate him the most.
(Top pic: Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY)