Rangers sign struggling Jack Johnson in curious NHL free agency move

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If the Rangers are right about Jack Johnson, who on Friday signed a one-year, $1.15 million deal days after having been bought out of the final three seasons of his contract by the Penguins, then pretty much everyone else in the NHL is wrong.

The phrase, “struggled mightily” was invented to describe Johnson’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, he signed with the endorsement of assistant coach (defense) Jacques Martin, who joined the Blueshirts this summer following seven years with the Penguins, and of president John Davidson, who had the same role in Columbus during the 33-year-old’s six-plus seasons with the Blue Jackets.

In this case, then, familiarity did not breed contempt.

Johnson can be physically inclined. He does have 937 games of experience in an NHL career that began following his third-overall selection by the Hurricanes in 2005. He does rank 35th in the NHL in blocked shots over the past two seasons. But he has trouble with speed, he does not drive play, his coverage has been suspect and his peripheral numbers have been among the worst in the league the last couple of years. And his stay in Columbus ended when he was scratched for the entirety of the Blue Jackets’ six-game, first-round playoff loss to the Capitals in 2018.

General manager Jeff Gorton did not address the media Friday, which is an indication there could be more to come reasonably soon from the Blueshirts, who on the first day of free agency also added four forwards (Kevin Rooney, Colin Blackwell, Anthony Greco, Jonny Brodzinski); a defenseman (Anthony Bitetto) and a goalie (Keith Kinkaid) for depth at AHL Hartford and to satisfy exposure regulations for the 2021 Seattle expansion draft.

It is difficult to put the signing of Johnson into context without knowing the role the team envisions for him. If it is as a third-pair guy who will be sheltered as required by coach David Quinn, well, that’s one thing. But if the team envisions a lead role for him, say, as Jacob Trouba’s left-side partner, that is quite another.

Johnson plays the left side, which includes Ryan Lindgren, Brendan Smith, and hopefuls Libor Hajek, K’Andre Miller and perhaps Tarmo Reunanen. But on Wednesday, Gorton said the team had discussed moving either Adam Fox or Tony DeAngelo to their off-side on the left.

In that case, the right side would be distilled to Trouba and the aforementioned righty (Fox or DeAngelo) who is not shifted to the left. There is no righty prospect knocking on the 2020-21 door. So if Fox or DeAngelo does switch, the Rangers will need another righty defenseman.

It seems unlikely that Johnson and Smith will both be on the roster. If they are, their combined cap hit would amount to $5.5 million, only $200,000 less than Marc Staal was set to earn before he was traded to Detroit to clear space. Remember, the Rangers sent a 2021 second rounder to the Red Wings in order to consummate that deal.

If Smith is waived to the AHL, his $4.35 million cap charge would be reduced by $1.075 million. But the team would then need to add a seventh defenseman, who would all but negate the savings. Perhaps Gorton will be able to deal Smith while retaining half of the charge.

It is all rather hazy at the moment. It is hard to believe there won’t be more coming. DeAngelo could still be moved. It is very early in the off-season that has already featured a buyout of Henrik Lundqvist, the trade of Staal, the first-overall selection of Alexis Lafreniere … and a very controversial decision to sign a polarizing defenseman, even if for only one year and $1.15 million.

We’ll see.

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