Courtesy of Point Park University

Johnson: ‘No regrets’ on signing with Penguins

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Jack Johnson. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- It's Jack Johnson's fault that the Penguins didn't qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs until the waning hours of the 2018-19 season.

He's the reason they only lasted four games against the Islanders, too.

And that mess your puppy made on the carpet?

Yep, Johnson's responsible for that.

Same with the looming threat of a recession.

Indeed, a sizable segment of the Penguins' fan base believes Johnson is culpable for pretty much anything -- and everything -- that doesn't go well in this particular corner of the universe.

Some surely could find his fingerprints all over the Steelers' 0-2 start.

Critics surfaced the instant word got out that he had signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July 2018, and got louder when it became known that he had gotten a five-year contract. Johnson was skewered on social media, and had he been subjected to trial-by-talk-show, he would have been acquitted on all counts of being a worthwhile addition to the team.

Johnson didn't make any converts early in the season, when he struggled while playing out of position on the right side, but even though public discontent might have reached its crescendo then, it didn't abate much after he moved back to the left side and stabilized his game.

The scalding critiques of his work were pretty hard to miss. Unless, it turns out, you were the subject of them. It seems that Johnson is more likely to turn up as the center of the Penguins' No. 1 line than he is on, say, Twitter.

Consequently, he was oblivious to all of the caustic evaluations of his play in 2018-19. And when it was mentioned to him recently that he has been a lightning rod for criticism, Johnson shrugged it off like an undersized forward trying to get around him near the net.

"I don't care," he said. "I don't really know what you're talking about. The only criticism that matters for me comes from Mr. (Jim) Rutherford, my coaches and my teammates. That's the only thing that matters. We're all on the same team, we all have the same goals. Outside stuff, I don't have social media, or anything like that. I don't listen to any of that."

Johnson worked mostly alongside Justin Schultz on the No. 2 defense pairing after Schultz recovered from a broken leg last season, but Marcus Pettersson might supplant him with Schultz this fall. Indeed, there's no guarantee Johnson even will be on the roster when the coming season begins; the Penguins reportedly were prepared to package him with Phil Kessel in a trade with Minnesota this spring until Kessel vetoed the deal, and Johnson remains a candidate to be traded because the Penguins need to open some salary-cap space.

He and Chad Ruhwedel formed the Penguins' most experienced defense pairing during their preseason opener, a 5-4 overtime loss to Buffalo Monday at Penn State. Johnson had an assist and was on the ice for two goals by each team.

There was a time when he was a pretty steady point-producer -- Johnson had 42 in 82 games with Los Angeles in 2010-11 -- but the Penguins rely on him mostly for physicality and sound defense, which he provided as last season moved along.

"The first couple of months were an adjustment for me, and then I think I settled in," he said.

When Johnson joined the Penguins, the two numbers he had worn throughout his career -- 3 and 7 -- were taken by Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen, respectively. After Maatta was traded to Chicago for Dominik Kahun this summer, Johnson claimed No. 3.

"I've worn 3 in high school, college, five years in Los Angeles, Olympics, World Cup, world championships, world juniors," he said. "Three has always kind of been my number."

It's been worn by a number of guys here over the years. One was Ron Stackhouse, a defenseman who couldn't have been more of a target for fan abuse if he'd replaced the crest on his sweater with a bull's-eye.

While the parallel between them isn't perfect -- Stackhouse was castigated mostly for playing a finesse game despite being a large man, which is not an issue with Johnson -- both absorbed withering criticism from many of their team's supporters. At least for Johnson, though, nothing has happened to make him second-guess his decision to sign here as a free agent.

"Why would I?" he said. "Absolutely not. I've loved everything about it. I've loved living here. I love the people here. The state of the organization is everything I thought it would be, and my teammates are phenomenal. No regrets. I have regrets about how the season ended, but absolutely no regrets about coming here. I feel very blessed and privileged that I've had the opportunity to be here."

It's hard to blame him for that.

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