I can't help but think that LA Kings general manager, Dean Lombardi, was listening to "Fortunate Fool" when he handed out Jack Johnson's new contract this week. Maybe he thought he was paying for the singer's song rights instead of the Kings defenseman. It's more likely that Lombardi will need the soothing sounds of the Brushfire Fairytales album to calm his salary cap anxiety for the next few years.
While the hockey version of Jack Johnson is enjoying a career year with 31 points in 42 games so far, his underlying numbers hardly endorse the seven year, $30 million contract he just signed with the Kings.
Johnson may have the potential to live up to that big contract, it's just that he hasn't shown it yet. Lombardi is taking a fairly large cap risk on a team dealing with expiring contracts for Drew Doughty, Michal Handzus, Justin Williams, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Marco Sturm and Wayne Simmonds at the end of this season. By overpaying for Johnson, he leaves less cap room to reward more productive players.
The USA Olympian is logging more ice time than Doughty so far this season, but wasn't exactly setting the league on fire in the early part of his career. The former third overall pick still hasn't had a season with a positive Corsi rate or with a Goals Against per 60 minutes below 3.00. In fact, he's been the Kings worst defenseman for goals against rate both this season and last season. In his first two seasons, he was second-worst on the team.
Johnson's new contract has a higher cap hit than Marc Staal and Brayden Coburn and is similar to the contract Dan Hamhuis signed with the Canucks this summer. Unfortunately, he hasn't performed to the same level of these players in the recent past.
He had the worst defensive record and second-worst possession numbers of the comparison group, despite having the easiest ice time. His GVT was good, but the situational stats tell us why:
Jack Johnson and comparable group, 2009-10
Statistic J. Johnson M. Staal D. Hamhuis B. Coburn
Cap Hit $4.4M $4.0M $4.5M $3.2M
Age 24 23 27 25
GVT 8.2 11.2 7.2 4.5
Def GVT 3.7 6.9 4.6 4.3
Off GVT 4.0 4.4 2.6 0.2
Corsi/60 -1.54 -4.76 5.90 7.35
Corsi QoC 0.02 1.03 0.37 -0.24
Zone starts 56.1% 44.7% 46.4% 51.0%
GA/60 3.26 1.87 2.55 2.56
Points/60 0.88 1.02 1.01 0.56
There are always situations where a player will have one big year just before his contract is up. In these cases, a GM must decide whether the breakout season is indicative of future performance or not.
In Johnson's case, there hasn't even been a breakout season. His biggest progression was from the 2008-09 season to the 2009-10 season. He progressed in terms of possession (-12.16 to -1.54 Corsi per 60) and scored 36 points compared to the previous year's total of 11 points. Johnson's GVT reflected that progression by jumping from 2.3 to 8.2. While that leap seems impressive, it coincided with Johnson against playing easier competition and enjoying a 5% spike in offensive zone starts.
The other issue is that despite Johnson's progression from 2008-09 to 2009-10, he's still not a top pairing defenseman. Among all NHL defensemen with 30 games played in the 2009-10 season, Johnson ranked 209th in goals against rate and 121st in Corsi rate. Those are the marks of a second or third pairing defender. And this is despite the 56.1% offensive zone start he was blessed with.
The pedigree of being the third overall pick may have skewed Lombardi's sense of value for a player like Johnson. History may also tell us that defensemen peak later than forwards and that Johnson's best years are still ahead of him.
That said, Marc Staal and Braydon Coburn have their best years ahead of them as well and recently signed new contracts of their own. Johnson likely should be paid closer to the $3.2 million that Coburn is making and certainly not more than Staal.
If Johnson makes a leap in the next season or so, then he may live up to the value in the back end of the deal given that it spans seven years. I'm open to all possibilities in the NHL after watching two goalies have a pose off of late.
The Kings have the cap room at the moment to accommodate what seems to be an overpay of Jack Johnson, but in the summer when they're scrounging money to keep the rest of their players, Lombardi will likely be regretting this contract.
Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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