This week in Cage Match how about a question I am sure that no one is asking – Jack Johnson or Matt Carle? Which isn’t to say this question shouldn’t be asked, it’s just that the two players in question do not have a very high profile. In a shallow league these two are borderline waiver fodder and in a deeper league they might be your fourth or fifth defenseman. Essentially, this decision shouldn’t make or break you – except that it could. The best fantasy managers know that you don’t make your bacon at the top of the draft, you make it at the bottom so being able to piece through the wreckage that is a picked-apart draft board to find that one player that will ultimately be a difference-maker has real value. So I’ll ask it again (this time with feeling), Jack Johnson or Matt Carle?
Both Johnson and Carle will be making waves for their new team whenever we have hockey again. For Johnson it will be about reacquainting himself as he did have a nice late run with the Blue Jackets after he was dealt to Columbus at the trade deadline. Carle, meanwhile, gets to reunite with his new old-team having been a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning ever so briefly during the 2008-09 season. Regardless of their status as new players both Johnson and Carle are veteran defensemen who will be counted on for heavy lifting.
Look no further than Johnson’s minutes upon his arrival in Columbus. Over the final 21 games of the season with the Jackets Johnson averaged 27:10 minutes per game with 4:17 coming on the power play. Granted that power play time was no different than what he was seeing in Los Angeles but had he played the full season in Columbus that 27:10 minutes per game mark would have made him the league leader.
We probably shouldn’t expect Johnson to continue to receive such gaudy minutes in the future but the good news is that the Jackets interim coach during Johnson’s initial stretch with the team, Todd Richards, was officially made head coach this summer so we know he won’t be shorted minutes. The question becomes whether or not Richards and his staff will find ways to get the most out of Johnson. In my opinion that means finding ways to hide him defensively. It’s not that he doesn’t compete hard – I just don’t think he has the hockey sense or feel for positional play to ever be a truly good defensive player.
He will compete hard, play physically, win puck battles and brings a tremendous ability to rush the puck but he is also going to have mental lapses, make poor reads and bad passes. He’ll also gamble physically and can take himself out of the play that way. During his end of year run with the Jackets last season Johnson was most commonly paired with James Wisniewski – a combination that was highly successful.
Johnson’s short run in Columbus at the end of last season was quite productive as he scored four goals and ten assists to go along with a plus-five rating. One must certainly call into question the sample size but this demonstration was amazing for a player with a previous career-best plus/minus rating of minus-15.
Wisniewski, while also a physical player, plays a much more intuitive and dependable game than Johnson. Sure, there are the discipline issues with Wisniewski, he’s also prone to gambling physically, but otherwise he makes very intelligent plays on the ice and does make for a very solid partner for Johnson. But Johnson has always had a stay-at-home type put beside him and there could be hiccups along the way if Wisniewski doesn’t take kindly to being forced to clean up Johnson’s mess too often.
The big problem for the Jackets is whether or not they can give the Johnson-Wisniewski pairing a high number of offensive zone starts and favourable defensive matchups. The Jackets do have three other proven defensemen in Adrian Aucoin, Fedor Tyutin and Nikita Nikitin so perhaps there is a shutdown pairing that can be pieced together from that group to keep the Johnson-Wisniewski pairing from having to do too much heavy lifting. If we don’t see NHL hockey this season, however the Jackets could lose the services of Aucoin who just has a one-year deal, which would mean having to incorporate not one but two prospects into the blueline mix. The Jackets have a fine group of defensive prospects with David Savard, Ryan Murray, John Moore, Tim Erixon and Cody Goloubef but it seems to be a stretch that the team could hand important defensive minutes to these guys. The Jackets could of course re-sign Aucoin or bring in another veteran option but we can’t just assume that is the case. I think it is a very reasonable assumption that the Johnson-Wisniewski pairing (if kept together) will be asked to play a lot of difficult minutes so that will limit Johnson’s effectiveness a bit.
Still, the power play time will be there in spades and you can imagine that with the shallow forward group the Jackets have in place Johnson will be given carte blanche to take chances and orchestrate offense, particularly on the power play, which is an area where he excels. We have seen in the past that even on poor offensive teams, defensemen with a willingness to rush the puck and make offensive plays can have success. Of course, it’s hard to imagine Johnson having more success in Columbus than he did in Los Angeles but he’s also only 25 years old, which is young for a defenseman. Maybe he has an extra gear or two that he can tap into.
Johnson has scored 36, 42 and 38 points in each of the past three seasons respectively. In a shortened season who knows what a hot run could land him but in the next full season I think that 50 is a possibility but you are better off drafting Johnson for 40 points and hoping for better. The reality is that if Johnson isn’t producing offense then he’s probably not providing his team with much value at all. He is always going to be in the mix to be productive, which makes him worth taking a chance on.
What about Carle, the Lightning’s prized summer acquisition? The assumption is that Carle will be THE GUY for the Lightning going forward but I am a bit skeptical. I know they shelled out big bucks for him but his contract isn’t so different from ones signed by stay-at-home types like Zbynek Michalek, Anton Volchenkov or Mike Komisarek once you consider inflation. The reality is that the free agent market was thin so the Lightning paid top dollar to acquire the best defenseman who was available regardless of whether he fit the bill as power play quarterback or franchise defenseman.
This isn’t to say that Carle is incapable of being that type of player. Certainly I think he offers potential as a top-pairing defenseman. He proved himself capable of being a top-four guy during his time with Philadelphia where he averaged 23 minutes per game with 2:38 coming on the power play.
Carle does have some pedigree with regards to potentially being a franchise defenseman. He was a second round pick back in 2003 (not that draft status really matters with defensemen) then went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in US college hockey in 2006 after a very successful run at the University of Denver. After that he made the NHL All-Rookie team scoring 11 goals and 42 points for the Sharks in 2006-07. Since then, however, Carle seems to have remodelled his game. There is a lot less risk taking involved. Consider his last three seasons with Philadelphia:
2009-10 – 6 goals – 29 assists
2010-11 – 1 goal – 39 assists
2011-12 – 4 goals – 34 assists
Carle simply isn’t going to be a risk-taker offensively. He is a very smart defenseman who plays a solid game while making effective reads and breakout passes. He isn’t the dynamic jump-into-the-rush sort of defenseman that Johnson is and he’s now 28 years old so I sincerely doubt he’s going to change his game up once again. With the forwards that the Lightning have, Carle backers are hoping that he won’t need to change his game to boost his numbers. The hope is that superstars like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will help drive him towards that 50-point plateau.
Here’s my question though, didn’t Carle play with superstar type talent in Philadelphia? The Flyers were a very high scoring team during Carle’s stint there (and so were the Sharks when he was in San Jose FYI) so surely any effect Carle might receive from playing alongside Stamkos and St. Louis would be mitigated by the fact that he was already playing with the likes of Giroux. The big difference is that in Tampa Bay Carle might finally receive top power play time.
But will he? Will he really? Keep in mind that the Lighting rolls with four forwards on their top power play unit with St. Louis acting as the power play quarterback, setting things up from his position on the right half-boards. This is not dissimilar from the Oilers vaunted power play with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing the St. Louis role. The Lightning’s power play stunk last season though and it may have been because they lacked a truly good defenseman to play that point position. They tried just about everyone from Marc-Andre Bergeron, Victor Hedman, Brett Clark, Brendan Mikkelson, Matt Gilroy, Pavel Kubina and even Eric Brewer. Nothing really fit.
Could Carle be the right fit? I’ve no doubt he has the capabilities to fit in well with the Lightning’s top power play group but if we consider the Oilers’ power play once again you’ll see that a top flight defenseman isn’t necessary. The Oilers had one of the most lethal power plays in the league and they did it with Corey Potter as the lone defenseman. The reason it worked was because he was a right-handed shooter who could crack one-timers easily off passes from Nugent-Hopkins setting up along the half-boards.
I think it is an oversimplification to say that all the Lightning needed to improve their power play was a right-handed shot from the point but I’ve no doubt it would have helped. Carle is a lefty so he doesn’t really fill the void. The Lightning also signed Sami Salo this summer, a smart veteran defenseman and a right-handed shot. He’s also a player who was once so concerned about the damage he might cause other players with his slap-shot that he stopped shooting slappers. Well he’s shooting them again and I suspect that even just the threat of having a player with Salo’s shooting ability on the point would create way more space than anything Carle could provide. In my opinion it will be Salo, not Carle, striking gold in Tampa Bay. This is nothing new for Salo as he was a fixture on the Vancouver Canucks power play these past few seasons so don’t take this to mean Salo will be producing any more than he historically has just take it to mean that he stands as a significant roadblock between Carle grabbing top unit power play time.
Carle should still be a minute-eater but I suspect he falls back into that secondary defensive role he played with the Flyers rather than being handed the reins to a potentially fearsome power play.
In conclusion, I’m giving this one to Jack Johnson, which I’m sure is no surprise but I still feel it was a discussion worth having. Both Carle and Johnson are roughly 40-point defensemen with 50-point upside. Johnson’s upside comes from sheer talent, Carle’s comes more from situational factors –factors that I have concluded are not as promising as one might initially suspect.