Ryan Johnson is a more important NHL player than I think we give him credit for.
After a half-season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Johnson was invited to Detroit Red Wings camp this past offseason but was released in early October with little fanfare and not given a contract. This season will likely be the first since 1997 in which the gritty, listed-at-6’1″-but-plays-like-5’10″ penalty killing specialist does not see any NHL action.
From all accounts, Ryan Johnson was a great character to have around in the dressing room and his penalty killing attributes, his speed, his faceoff ability, and his desire to get in the dirty areas, were very much appreciated by his coaches, who kept giving him playing time. Not so much by his General Managers, who kept trading him and leaving him un-signed. He only lasted more than two seasons with a single team: the St. Louis Blues during a tenure sliced in half by the lockout of ’05.
So, what’s so important about Ryan Johnson?
He is hockey’s Mario Mendoza.
Mario Mendoza was a ballplayer who split eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers and he ranks as one of baseball’s worst offensive players. He never hit above .245, hit a career .215, and is better known for being the player responsible for the naming of the “Mendoza line” of a .200 hitter (200 hits in 1000 at bats. An average hitter is 260 and a good hitter is 300) which was, as Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus described in 2005: “The minimum tolerable level of offense a player must produce to hang around the fringes of a major league roster.”
When a player doesn’t contribute offensively, there is usually a reason why. In Mendoza’s case, it’s because he had a flashy glove and a good teammate. For hockey players, most ardent viewers and students of the game alike can appreciate players who rarely light the lamp on the basis that they provide a different element to the game, but hitting, by drawing or killing penalties, and laying your teeth on the line to dive head-first into a Shea Weber slapshot.
Ryan Johnson is spectacular. No non-fighter in the history of hockey scored fewer goals and recorded fewer points in the number of games he played. 701 career games, he had his arms raised just 38 times. Take the list of players who have played 500 games in their careers, and Johnson is 13th worst for goals despite having an inordinately high amount of ice-time. The players lower than Johnson in this regard were for the most part, career goons who saw very little ice-time: Ken Baumgartner, Jim Cummins, Mick Vukota. Despite so few of these players even seeing half the ice-time that Johnson did, they still tallied almost as many goals.
GP : 701
G : 38
Pts : 122
PIM : 250
+/- : -87
Barring a completely disproportionate PDO over the course of his 701 NHL games, Johnson also ranks as a barely tolerable defensive player as well. As an overall player, how good was he?
His GVT (or Goals Versus Threshold, the closest thing hockey statisticians have to baseball’s holy grail Wins Above Replacement statistic) over the four years of his career where this stuff has been tracked is also right around replacement level: minus-0.2 last season with Chicago 0.9 and 1.8 in two seasons with the Canucks and 5.6 in 2008 with St. Louis. Over the four years of his career where GVT is available to us, Johnson has played at a level high enough to make him worth just 7.8 goals over a replacement level player, which is just enough for about one win in the standings.
His possession (Corsi) numbers were also so famously bad that they were brought up on Coach’s Corner:
(Head to 4:58 in the video)
“This shows how stupid the Corsi thing is…here’s a guy that every coach would want…this is how stupid guys come up with…trying to earn a living…they come up with dumb…they said this guy is the worst hockey player in the league…this guy is unbelievable and they call him the worst from that dumb thing that you did…and he’s the worst player? I’ll tell you one thing…Vancouver loves this guy…he is unbelievable…and that dumb-dumb system you’re talking about…I would love to have Ryan Johnson on my team and every coach would have him on too…”
One issue here is that Don Cherry falls into the trap of taking the Corsi number too literally. If you corrected the Corsi for Johnson’s zone-start rate, you’d find that he wasn’t the worst player in hockey, but barely offensively tolerable.
Johnson’s offensive and defensive performance was essentially the minimum threshold for a non-goon to survive in the National Hockey league. No player accomplished less with more in the NHL than Ryan Johnson as he continued to play, earn jobs and exist, barely.
Baseball has it’s Mendoza Line, and to hockey I suggest the Ryan Johnson Number, taking into account the average Ryan Johnson season. A player who scores fewer than 10 points and records a plus/minus rating of minus-3 or worse is not fit to play in the National Hockey League. If this “feat” is accomplished in 58 or more games, the player is very unlikely to find work the next season. The tool doesn’t hold much in the way of advanced numbers, but by looking back through the years since the lockout, it’s a simple and effective resource for predicting players who frustrate their teams to such an extent they don’t want them back.
Here is a list of players who were below 9 points and minus-3 in 2011 who also had fewer than 100 PIMs:
Troy Bodie (left un-qualified as an RFA by Carolina, invited to and released from Winnipeg camp)
Boyd Gordon (not re-signed by Washington, signed in Phoenix)
Adam Mair (waived by Buffalo, invited to and released from Philadelphia camp)
Todd Marchant (retired with Anaheim)
Toby Petersen (inexplicably with the Dallas Stars)
Fredrik Sjostrom (left un-signed by Toronto, signed in Sweden)
Tom Wandell (inexplicably with the Dallas Stars)
If you expand the list to include players with a high PIM rate, you end up with also Zenon Konopka, Cody McLeod, Brad Staubitz and George Parros. Those players are still kicking around and will each get in a dozen fights or so this season barring any injury. But even some fighters like Chris Neil, Jared Boll, Sean Avery, Brandon Prust, Steve Ott, Derek Dorsett or B.J. Crombeen can still record the occasional point at a faster rate than Johnson could, even in his prime. I’ll purpot that the goons who put up fewer than 9 points and a minus-3 are a market inefficiency who come in with a clear value “below Ryan Johnson” (or a negative VARJ).
We love the defensive specialist and the hard-nosed player without being too dirty. Ryan Johnson may have been the best at that, as he had a long NHL career as a stop-gap depth centreman option on some bad teams who had eyes for the value that he brought to a hockey club.
He may be my favourite player. Unspectacular in every regard, but he played over 700 career NHL games. He’s one of the guys that you aren’t supposed to notice, but brings enough value to a hockey team that they’d want to keep having him hang around.
(h/t to Kent Wilson of Hockey Prospectus for relaying the GVT numbers)