Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, and the Roles of Defensemen

Posted by The Coach on May 28, 2014
Columbus Blue Jackets

Jack Johnson. James Wisniewski. Two divisive players playing the same position. A quick Google search will bring up loads of examples of people saying how bad Jack Johnson is. A quick search of Twitter post-playoff elimination would have found numerous examples of people saying how bad James Wisniewski is. What all that super analysis tends to forget is the role of a defenseman. Which isn’t always easy to judge. It’s much easier to watch a forward play, look at his stats, and decide with reasonable accuracy how good (or bad) he is. For defensemen, it is MUCH more difficult. That stats aren’t quite as telling. Some of the most important aspects of playing defense have no stats, are barely perceptible to most viewers, and are significantly influenced by the role the defenseman plays on his team. Put a guy in his own end, against the best players, and make him the primary puckhandler on his pairing, and you’ll see a lot of goals against, a lot of turnovers, and not a lot of points. Put a guy in the offensive zone, against lesser competition, playing with scorers, and make him one of the focal points of the offense, and you’ll see less turnovers, lots of points and goals, and less goals against. Switch up either of those roles on the fly,  and you’re likely to see the results switch up. There are only six defensemen on a team, so unless they are just rolled over willy nilly, you can’t compare teammates (well unless they are partners). You need to look at how those defensemen compare to other defensemen playing similar roles. So that’s what I did for Johnson and Wisniewski to try and find out if they are good, average, terrible, or deserving of buyouts.

Before I get into it, let’s take a look at what I actually did to filter down the comparable players. I didn’t look at any “quality” stats of any sort, just usage. So I took players with similar zone starts, even strength time on ice per game, and quality of competition time on ice percentage. So for Johnson, this resulted in players under 49% offensive zone starts, over 17 minutes of even strength time on ice per game, and over 28.5% QoC TOI%. Basically a list of the minute munching defensive stoppers around the league, and the big minute guys on bad teams. The gist: a lot of tough minutes. For Wiz, the list was players with 48% to 55% offensive zone starts, 16 to 18 even strength minutes per game, and 28% to 29% QoC TOI%. This produced a list of second pair types (at even strength at least), with slightly easier zone starts, while facing similar level of competition as Johnson’s group. These filters left me with sets of 42 comparable players for Johnson, and 30 comparable players for Wiz.

From there, I added in a whole bunch of other information: goals for percentage, Corsi for percentage, shots for percentage, and even strength points per game. I then just ranked every player by each of these categories and found the average rank to see where Wiz and Johnson fit among their peers. This isn’t that scientific, just a rudimentary way of making sense of a whole bunch of information. For the most part it made sense. The top player in Johnson’s group was Mark Giordano (who is secretly super amazing), while Wiz’s group was led by Johnny Boychuk. The worst player in Johnson’s group was Dmitri Kulikov, while Rob Scuderi was last in Wiz’s. Both of those players are not particularly great. Johnson was in the lower portion of the middle of the pack, at 28th. The two players above him were Marc Staal and Paul Martin, with Tom Gilbert and Josh Gorges coming in behind him. Fedor Tyutin was also pulled into Johnson’s group, but he came in at 37th (with Justin Schultz and Andrew MacDonald right ahead of him, and Jeff Petry and Ron Hainsey behind him).

As for Wiz? He was the 5th best player in his group, trailing only Johnny Boychuk, Matt Niskanen, Victor Hedman, and Anton Stralman. Right behind him is Slava Voynov and Jason Demers. Like Tyutin with Johnson’s group, Wiz’s standard partner was pulled in, and like Tyutin, Ryan Murray was also way down the list. Murray came in at 26th, following Thomas Hickey and Matt Irwin, and followed by Andre Benoit and Bryce Salvador. Now Murray has gotten a lot of credit for helping Wiz, and much of that is deserved, but for this season Wiz was better than Murray in every way. Murray received slightly easier minutes against slightly weaker competition, was less dominant possession-wise, the Jackets scored less with Murray on the ice compared to Wiz, and Wiz outscored Murray at even strength. Just look at the With or Without You stats. Murray fell off a cliff without Wiz, while Wiz stayed pretty much the same whether playing with Murray or playing with someone else. I still believe Murray is the future of this defense, and he’ll be an elite player. But this season much of his success was derived from James Wisniewski.

So that was a pretty substantial information dump. Let’s sum it up: at even strength, Johnson is slightly below average for NHL players used in his role, and Wisniewski is among the top NHL players used in his role. So that covers even strength. What about if we pare things down even further by only including players with similar special teams usage as well. Both Wiz and Johnson play quite a bit on both the powerplay (3:12 for JJ, 3:39 for Wiz) and penalty kill (2:58 for JJ, 1:59 for Wiz). So let’s only include players who played at least 2:00 per game on the PP and 2:00 SH (for JJ) and 1:30 SH (for Wiz). This further narrows down our groups. Wiz is the second best player in his group at even strength (behind Hedman, ahead of Voynov, Kulikov, Murray, and Benoit), while being the best player on the powerplay (by a SIGNIFICANT margin), and trailing only Hedman (by 10 seconds) and Voynov (by 3 seconds) in penalty killing time. There isn’t a great way to measure individual performance on the penalty kill, but LA was barely ahead of Columbus in penalty killing (11th at 83.1% to the CBJ’s 14th at 82.1%), and both were better than Tampa (23rd at 80.7%). It’s fair to say that Wisniewski is arguably the best player in this group (or performed as such last season).

As for Johnson, paring his list down by PP and SH time reduces the list to 14 names: Giordano, Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber, Ryan McDonagh, Roman Josi, Alex Goligoski, Andrei Markov, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Andy Greene, Dion Phaneuf, Paul Martin, Andrew MacDonald, and Christian Ehrhoff. That is a pretty impressive list of players. Where does Johnson fit on that list? Nestled between Martin and MacDonald near the bottom. Unlike Wisniewski, adding in the powerplay numbers doesn’t help him very much. JJ plays 3:12 per game, which pretty much falls in the middle of that group. As does his 0.22 powerplay points per game. The Jackets PP was 11th in the league, which ranks right in the middle of the teams represented here. So Johnson is basically average among his peers on the PP. It comes out the same way shorthanded. The Jackets are 7th again among these teams. Johnson plays a little more at SH, as only Greene and Chara played more PK time. However, they also anchored the first and third best penalty kills in the league. So among his peers, Johnson is below average at even strength, and almost exactly average on special teams, which probably would bump him up to slightly below average overall.

So what does all this mean? Well pretty much that neither of these guys are as bad (for the haters) or as good (for the superfans) as you think. Well, Wisniewski might be as good as you think. Yes, he was used offensively in the regular season and flourished. Yes, he buckled under having to play too many minutes against one or more of the best players in the world during the playoffs. He’s still one of the five or ten best offensive defensemen in the entire league (third in the NHL in PP points, 9th in points). Is he overpaid? Not even a little bit. Average salary of the ten highest scoring defensemen in the NHL this year: $5.4M. Wiz makes slightly more than that, but Wiz was also an unrestricted free agent when he signed, and the majority of the top dmen scorers (8 of the 10) signed their current deals as restricted free agents. This average will change quickly too, as PK Subban will get a huge raise. If he makes $8m a season starting next year,  that $5.4m jumps to $5.9m. Here’s the test case this offseason: watch what Matt Niskanen gets paid. Niskanen was slightly better all around at even strength, half the player that Wiz is on the PP, and a non-factor shorthanded. In other words, Wiz is the better all around player. Niskanen is a UFA this summer, and a right-handed shot to boot. He’s also close to the same age as when Wiz hit the market. I would be absolutely shocked if he gets less than $6m per season.

Johnson also comes out as about appropriately paid, and we also have the test case for how much he would make on the open market. Johnson’s comparable players earn an average of $5.1m per season. In fact, only Mark Giordano, Roman Josi, Andy Greene, and Christian Ehrhoff will have lower cap hits than him next season. Giordano is one of the league’s best bargains, Josi was an RFA, Greene’s not the offensive player that Johnson is (or at least he wasn’t), and Ehrhoff’s deal is ridiculous in it’s own way (he made $33m the last two seasons, yet only has a $4m cap hit). The test case is Andrew MacDonald. He plays a ton of minutes, plays in every situation, and comes out below Johnson at even strength, and on the powerplay (but similar on the PK). If Johnson hit unrestricted free agency, he would definitely earn more than the six year, $5m per year deal that MacDonald just signed.

Doing this research was eye opening, particularly for Johnson. The tendency is to want Johnson to be a Chara or Weber type, considering his reputation pre-Columbus, draft pedigree, and time on ice. Instead, think of him as a slightly better Andrew MacDonald, or a slightly lesser Paul Martin. Under that lens, he’s perfectly fine. He isn’t even overpaid in that light. He’s just a solid enough hockey player. Remove the expectation, and you remove most of the negativity. Same with Wisniewski. He makes the occasional boneheaded play, but that is magnified so much due to the sheer amount of time the puck spends on his stick (compared to most defensemen). Add in the free agent hoopla over his signing, and his massive paycheck, and you get a similar situation to Johnson. We want Wiz to be a world beater, number one defenseman type. He isn’t that. He’s an incredible weapon from the backend, one that few teams can match. He makes about what he should for what he does. He just isn’t that great defensively. But not every player needs to be amazing at everything. Wiz has his weakness, and since it’s defense and he’s a defenseman, it gets blown out of proportion. Don’t compare Wiz to PK Subban or Erik Karlsson, offensive wizards with solid all-around games, but instead a Matt Niskanen, Kris Letang, Slava Voynov-type. A powerplay weapon best used against the opponents weakest players and in the offensive end. Under that light, Wiz is one of the best in the NHL at that, and is properly paid.

Make of this what you will. This probably won’t change some people’s minds when it comes to Wiz or JJ. For me, it does clarify what we need Ryan Murray to become. The best teams in the league have better players in the Jack Johnson role. Ryan Murray needs to be that guy, and I think he can become that. That would then push Johnson down to an easier role (or allow him to ride shotgun to a high ranking guy (a la Roman Josi with Shea Weber, TJ Brodie with Mark Giordano, etc.). Getting better minute munchers higher up in the lineup allows Wiz to play more in the offensive zone than he already does, further increasing the value received from him. This comes back to roles. Judged based on their roles, JJ and Wiz are perfectly fine hockey players. Force them into different roles, and either you get improvement or decline in their play. Due to injury and matchup, Wiz had to take on too much in the playoffs and struggled. Johnson is constantly playing a little over his head. Some added improvement from the youngsters and maybe the Jackets can get to a place where Wiz and Johnson are able to play in the proper role with some consistency.

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4 Comments to Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski, and the Roles of Defensemen

  • So all aligns if we get a 1st paring RD (internally or externally) and Murray becomes the 1st paring LD we all hope and expect. Tyutin/Johnson become our 2nd pairing (able to step up when needed) and Wisniewski our 3rd paring RD (also able to step up in limited quantities). Not easy to accomplish, but what is needed.

    • I think it’s even closer than that. I think Johnson can play with Murray on the top pair. Provided Murray becomes an elite defenseman (which isn’t a stretch), Johnson might just be good enough to play with him. Then you have Tyutin and someone playing tough minutes as well, which would free up Wiz and someone as an offense-centric third unit. Fill in the blanks beside Tyutin and Wiz with Savard, Prout, Erixon, etc. My best guess would be Murray-Johnson, Tyutin-Savard, Erixon-Wiz as the pairing within the next couple years.

  • Jack is a solid D-man…probably suited more as a 2nd pair but Columbus doesn’t have a legit top pairing at the moment. He can eat up minutes, but is also prone to some mistakes. I don’t have much of a problem with Jack given the situation on the blue line. He should be playing 2nd pair minutes with some heavy PP time, but that’s just not possible currently.

    Wiz is al risk/reward. When healthy, he can provide 50+ points in a season. Granted, he’ll also directly contribute to numerous opposition goals (like just about every playoff game this year). Wiz should never be on the ice with JJ – they are both below average on the back end – unless it’s the power play. Wiz should be sheltered from top opposition lines – so more like 3rd line minutes and the power play. He is just so spectacularly bad when he makes miscues – like in the playoffs, every game.

    I would honestly trust Murray and Savard more than these two if you’re talking an all-around game. Power play? Then Wiz and JJ. Hard to judge Tyutin with his ankle sprain at the Olympis. But I see Savard and Murray make a lot of the “simple” or “right” plays while JJ and Wiz make riskier plays and often pay the price with turnovers in the defensive zone.

  • Well thought-out analysis, Coach. I don’t have any doubts that JD and Jarmo agree and are on the hunt for a top-line RD for next year. We have a nice group of young D who aren’t quite ready yet but we just can’t afford to wait on them, IMHO. Our D cost us a first round win.

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