Back in training camp — when the Blackhawks populated their film sessions with clips from Avalanche-Lightning matchups in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final — former Avs, now Hawks defenseman Jack Johnson kept appearing in the clips.
“We were joking [that] it’s the ‘Jack Show,'” coach Luke Richardson recalled.
One thing Johnson was regularly seen doing well, and has continued doing well this season, was making subtle moves to escape pressure from opposing forecheckers before making passes to start defensive-zone breakouts.
Johnson will never be confused for a slick puck-handler, but even at age 36 (he celebrated his birthday last week) with 1,066 regular-season games under his belt, that remains a forte.
“He knows how to use some subtle movements in his body to fool a forechecker…just to get them off pace,” Richardson said. “One step this way, it gives them an out. I think everybody’s learning from that.”
Connor Murphy, Johnson’s partner the last five games, falls in that everybody.
“Jack is a really strong guy, and he knows how to hold forwards up in the corners,” Murphy said. “And then he has a lot of skill to be able to shake off forecheckers with his puck play and passing. It’s something I’ve wanted to improve with.
“I’ve been working on some stuff with coaches. And then even in games, [I’m focusing on] having a mindset of winning the battle, then going from a stronger ‘battle feeling’ to poise with the puck and being able to find guys and move my feet to make options.”
Johnson describes the ability as instinct-based. He determines the best exit lane in any given situation on the fly because, as he memorably puts it, “hockey is an improv sport.”
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Murphy, a native of Columbus, Ohio, and Johnson, a Columbus resident in the offseason, have known each other for years but have become much closer this season. So it’s surprising they hadn’t been paired together at any point until Jan. 6 against the Coyotes.
Since Richardson united his Columbusites, though, the Hawks have won four of five games. Coincidence? Maybe. But the resulting confidence that the entire team has accumulated recently — after wading through months of very little positive reinforcement — has made life easier.
“We’ve seen each other a couple times in past summers, but that’s about it; you don’t get to know each other too well,” Johnson said. “When you’re teammates, you spend more time with each other. It’s just a lot more fun trying to grow as a pair.
“We’ve tried to control what we can control defensively. We have pretty good gaps together, and I don’t feel like we’ve spent too much time in our ‘D’-zone. Those are all positives. … To be honest, I think we’ve played pretty well together.”
From a big-picture standpoint, Johnson’s play is difficult to analyze because his statistics are so poor.
His 36.6% scoring-chance ratio at five-on-five ranks last among 217 defensemen league-wide, per Natural Stat Trick. With Murphy specifically, his ratio is no better: 36.1%. His rate of 9.88 botched retrievals and failed exits per 60 also ranks seventh-to-last, per All Three Zones, even though that’s supposedly a strength.
But in his entire 17-year career — in which he has experienced a fair amount of success — he has finished with a ratio above 50% just once. It’s worth wondering if the current generation of publicly available analytics simply might not quantify his style accurately.
Regardless, Johnson’s veteran leadership, cheap contract and unheralded strengths could conceivably entice a contender to trade for him at the deadline.
And one more legitimate playoff run — maybe even back to the Cup Final — would be a deserved reward for the dedication Johnson has shown this Hawks team in spite of the couldn’t-be-more-different timelines of his career and their rebuild.