Five years ago, John Davidson was hired as president of hockey operations for a struggling Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.
He promised a brick-by-brick approach, a slow-and-steady build that would be done honestly and with no gimmicks. The previous year, 2011-2012, was a nightmare for the Blue Jackets; they were heading towards a brutal finish with no light at the end of the tunnel.
In February of the same year, the Blue Jackets traded away Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings, signaling an end to a humiliating period for Jackets fans. Carter didn't want to play in Columbus – and he made that clear. Mere months after the trade, the Kings won their first ever Stanley Cup, and Carter rode shotgun all the way.
Coming the other way in the deal was Jack Johnson, a 25-year old defenseman who had played all six of his NHL seasons with the Kings. A complete foil to Carter, Johnson embraced the new challenge he would inevitably face in Columbus. He became a leader in the dressing room for a young Blue Jackets team.
Johnson has seen it all in Columbus. He was once a top-pairing defenseman on the club. Heck, the year that the Blue Jackets traded for him, he played an average of 27:25 per night. But fast forward to 2017, and he's a 30-year-old veteran that is logging a career-low TOI.
Despite all the good, Johnson's time in Columbus may be coming to an end.
He's still a serviceable defenseman, though his true value is a battleground for many in the analytics community. To the eye, he's an elite skater (even at 30) who plays a solid two-way game. The lefty has put up 271 points in 730 career NHL regular season games, a respectable number for any NHL defenseman.
But the data says Johnson is a replacement-level defenseman.
Per NaturalStatTrick, Johnson has been a positive (50%+) CF% player exactly zero seasons in his career, meaning that the opposition consistently has the puck more when he's on the ice. This year, his 48.41 CF% this season ranks second to last (David Savard) among the seven Blue Jackets defensemen that have played 50+ minutes of 5-on-5 hockey.
The below chart indicates Jack Johnson's game score since 2008. Without diving too deep into the math behind game score, just know that it measures a player's overall performance within a game. Also consider that 0.3 is approximately the league average; clearly, Johnson has had an up-and-down career, both in Los Angeles and in Columbus.
Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after this season. He'll get a nice contract, but it may not come from the Blue Jackets. For obvious reasons, it's fair to assume that Johnson will not be taking a hometown discount to stay in the capital city. His current cap hit of $4.35M is a reasonable starting place for his next contract, depending on the term.
From the Blue Jackets perspective, it would be a luxury to keep Johnson in the fold. But according to a new report from The Athletic, the odds aren't favorable for the club. Add in Cam Atkinson's seven-year extension that ties him to Columbus through 2024-25, and it sure looks like Johnson is headed to free agency as the Blue Jackets have Artemi Panarin, Zach Werenski and Sergei Bobrovsky needing new deals in the near future.
Per Craig Custance:
"If you would have checked in on these negotiations before the season started, there would be a lot more reason for optimism about a deal between Johnson and the Blue Jackets. That’s no longer the case. These things can always change with one phone call, but the bet here is he hits free agency. Part is money but he’s also seen a declined role on the Blue Jackets this season, playing only 18:28 per game, the lowest of his career. He’ll be 31 years old when the market opens and still has another healthy contract in him."
As long as the Blue Jackets remain in the thick of the playoff race, trading a veteran defenseman (like Johnson) at the deadline wouldn't seem likely.
On the other hand, the Jackets are (for the first time in their existence) genuinely deep on the blue line. Not many teams can boast eight NHL defensemen, but they can. Scott Harrington would be a bottom-pairing defenseman on most NHL teams, and there's a reason he hasn't been sent down to the AHL. He'd have to clear waivers, and it's not a guarantee he would clear.
Aside from Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, Markus Nutivaara has impressed, as he and Ryan Murray have filled Jones and Savard's second-pairing minutes in recent games. Gabriel Carlsson is waiting in the wings, and has been solid in a limited role this year.
There's no question that the Blue Jackets will have a difficult decision to make surrounding Johnson. He helps them now, but what if they decide to use this advantageous depth on the blue line to facilitate a trade? If they are still in playoff position at the trade deadline, do they move Johnson anyway, knowing they're better off getting a return - any return - as opposed to letting him walk away with no gain?
All of these questions have to come into play in daily conversations between Davidson and Kekalainen. Johnson has been a good soldier, but in sports, nothing is forever.