Welcome to the premiere of Jackets 20, a series which celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Columbus Blue Jackets by profiling 20 of the most important players from the first two decades. This is not a ranking, nor is it strictly based on talent. Rather, these posts will reflect what these players have meant to each of us as fans, and the impact they had on the course of the franchise and on the community at large. Today, we profile former assistant captain Jack Johnson, who was traded here in February 2012.
Jack Johnson: “I’ve been looking to be in a winning culture.”— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) July 1, 2018
It wasn’t supposed to end the way it did in Columbus for Jack Johnson. But it ended, and in catastrophic fashion. After being healthy scratched in the playoffs against the Washington Capitals, Johnson left on the first day of free agency and signed a five year deal worth $3.25 million per year with the division rival Pittsburgh Penguins and uttered the now-infamous quote that he now insists was not a backhand at his former team.
It was not supposed to end this way. Not for the player who embraced Columbus when its two most household names had asked out of town and would soon be on their way out door.
The 2011-12 season held promise for the Blue Jackets. With captain Rick Nash still in his prime at age 27, the front office swung for the fences to try to bring in a bona fide number one center to play next to Nash. Enter Jeff Carter. Carter was seen as a true number one player, a former 11th overall pick who had posted 343 points in 461 career games, a center who could lighten the scoring load on Nash while setting up the captain. The Jackets had traded Jakub Voracek, along with a first and a third round pick for Carter. In the first of many signs it would not work out, Nash had to fly to visit Carter to convince him to report.
Carter lasted just 39 games in Columbus. Nash lasted just 19 more after the Carter trade, having requested a trade in January of 2012, right after Carter did.
Enter a 6-1, 227 pound defenseman from the University of Michigan.
Carter himself said the situation was tough from the get go. But his locker room problems, injures (he missed 20 games with a broken foot and a separated shoulder), along with a lack of success for the team while he was here, soured him on the franchise. Carter requested a trade and was sent to the Los Angeles Kings for a defenseman as the Columbus Blue Jackets looked to reset. Jeff Carter, of course, went on to win a Stanley Cup that spring with the Los Angeles Kings.
After Carter’s antics during his time in Columbus, Johnson was a welcome breath of fresh air. “I am excited by this,” Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch, “to go to a team that wants me and to play in a great sports city.”
What a thing for frustrated fans to hear. No wonder, years later, Carter still appeared on fans’ lists of “Most Hated” former players.
At the time, the Blue Jackets sat 18-35-7 in the standings, dead last by a mile in wins and points. But, for the first time in months, the team had something worth looking toward the future.
That summer, Rick Nash was dealt away for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and other assorted parts. The deconstruction of a failed roster was complete - the two stars were gone.
Jack Johnson, someone who wanted to be in Columbus, who wanted a chance to thrive, was here.
Johnson was not without his issues in Columbus. Known more for his offensive abilities than for his prowess in his own zone, Johnson was (and still is) a pariah of the advanced analytics community. His familial issues and related bankruptcy proceedings were an ongoing saga in the town, losing most of his salary to creditors and bankruptcy court.
This did not stop fans from embracing him on the ice. As part of the “controlled chaos” pairing with fellow offensive defenseman James Wisniewski, Johnson was one of the players who contributed to the first two playoff wins in franchise history.
He continued to play big minutes for the Jackets, averaging 23:22 per night, until his seven years in Columbus ran their course.
He ended his time in union blue with 36 goals and 118 assists for 154 points in 445 games. He went -19 in his time with 198 penalty minutes; he scored seven game winning goals. Johnson had nine points in 11 playoff games.
The separation of player and organization was not a kind one. You may remember these words from John Tortorella, captured by The Athletic:
“All I know is, this organization, from the lawyers, the front office, J.D. (John Davidson), the managers, the coaches, players … has done nothing but try to help Jack,” Tortorella told The Athletic. “And for him to backhand slap us like this is utter bull****, and he should know better.
“No one wishes anything bad to happen to him and his family. We wish him the best. But for him to put it the way he put it today is bull****. And to have a general manager question our decision-making from three hours away, he must be a f***** magician.”
“That’s what pisses me off,” he said. “He doesn’t have enough balls to call me back, because I’ve tried to get in touch with him. You don’t shit on an organization that’s done nothing but try to help you. We all know Jack has had some problems along the way here; it’s very well-chronicled. All we’ve done is try to f***** help him.
Yikes. This after Jack Johnson requested a trade in January 2018 (that the team did not follow through with), a request that left a sour taste in many mouths across the 614.
The split may not have gone down the way fans wanted, but it has overshadowed how happy fans were to have a guy who wanted to be hear. Read this quote again: “I am excited by this,” Johnson told the Columbus Dispatch, “to go to a team that wants me and to play in a great sports city.”
In February 2012, after Jeff Carter’s six month hissy fit, after weeks of rumors of Rick Nash being on the trade block (eventually confirmed by the captain himself in a press conference), after months and months of averaging just over three wins per month - the Blue Jackets had a guy who publicly said “I want to be here.” The Jackets had a player who wanted to take part in building a culture that could help chance the perception of the franchise, a player who was in it for the long haul, and a player who would not ask out after just 39 games played because times were tough.
Things may not have ended happily, but at the time? Those words meant all the world to a weary and beaten down fanbase. Johnson was the first player brought in from outside the draft to commit to building something that laid the foundation for where the organization has gone in the years since.
The work continues, but Jack Johnson’s impact and willingness to commit was a first step. All journeys begin with just a single step.