Why Avalanche traded cheaper defenseman to bring back Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson’s suspicions escalated right before the Blackhawks departed on their three-game West Coast road trip in the last week of February. He had surmised seven months ago when he signed a one-year deal that he might not finish the 2022-23 season with Chicago.

It became a lot easier to read the tea leaves after the message he got.

“Before the trip, my agent told me to pack a ‘deadline bag,’” Johnson said Monday.

So the 36-year-old defenseman packed more than he ordinarily would. Before the Blackhawks could play the second game of the trip, Johnson was on a flight to Denver, on a path to a reunion with the team that got him his first Stanley Cup ring.

The Avalanche’s blue line trade Sunday was both telegraphed and startling. There was mutual interest in a contract extension for Johnson last summer — “I waited a while with hopes of coming back after being here, but it just, it was the business side of it,” he said. But from the moment he signed with a rebuilding Chicago organization for $200,000 more than the league minimum, punditry was abundant that an eventual trade back would make sense. Even Johnson himself thought about it.

“I always thought there was a chance,” he said. “Clearly going into it, I was eyes-wide-open that there was there was definitely a solid chance of getting moved regardless. You just don’t know where. But you’re in a situation where if you are going to be moved, you hope it’s someplace that you’re really, really excited about and comfortable with. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The unexpected wrinkle of the friendly acquisition is what Colorado gave Chicago in return. Andreas Englund is also a pending unrestricted free agent, but he’s nine years younger than Johnson and $200,000 cheaper. He played 36 Avalanche games this season after getting called up from AHL-Loveland.

Filling in for injuries on the third pairing, Englund was reliable for his role. Big mistakes were minimal. The analytics showed it. His expected goals for rate was 53%. His scoring chances for rate was 50.6%, His high-danger chance rate was 48.4%. Johnson’s slash line of those three statistics is 37%, 36.6% and 34.4%.

“His underlying numbers were terrible when we got him the first time,” a wry Jared Bednar retorted when asked about Johnson’s iffy analytics. “Some of the worst in the league. And I felt like he did a heck of a job for us. Helped us win a Stanley Cup.”

The discrepancy between Englund and Johnson can partially be explained by the incongruity of their respective settings. Englund was playing more sheltered ice time for a championship contender, while Johnson was averaging close to 20 minutes for a tanking team. General manager Chris MacFarland and his analytics staff dig into those numbers when evaluating trade prospects.

But more to the point than those excuses is that an organization known for being analytically savvy acted on pure feel this time. An exchange of depth defensemen isn’t a significant trade, but it is an unusual and fascinating object of study.

If there is a singular concrete reason to favor Johnson over Englund, call it playoff vibes.

“I think you’re getting a more experienced player in Jack. And a guy that’s proven he can do it when things really get ratcheted up,” Bednar said. “We’re still mid-season. The season’s going to get ratcheted up here down the stretch run and into the playoffs. So the unknown would make me a little bit nervous with Engy, I think, in some of those situations. With a guy like Jack, he’s been there, done that.”

So it came to be that Johnson woke up Monday in Denver and “couldn’t believe I was back,” allowing his mind to wander down memory lane. The nostalgia even stretched to opening night of this season, when the Blackhawks visited Denver on banner-raising night. Johnson, in his new attire, was invited to join the Avalanche for the pregame ceremony. He was even a reluctant participant in the team picture.

“It’s funny; I didn’t ask for anything. They told me to come out and watch the banner going up,” Johnson recalled. “And then there’s a there’s a lady — I think she was working for the league — on the bench with a headset. And when the guys skated out, she told me to go out, and I was pretty hesitant because I was sitting there in a Hawks uniform. I didn’t want to photobomb the picture and the ceremony. She radioed up and reassured me, like, ‘Yeah, they want you to go.’”

The foreshadowing was obvious.

Want more Avalanche news? Sign up for the Avalanche Insider to get all our NHL analysis.

Source: Read Full Article