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2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning Player Grades: is Tyler Johnson worth the money?

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Looking beyond the 29 goals for an answer to this expensive question.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning
Dec 13, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson (9) celebrates as he scores a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at Amalie Arena. 
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.

On paper, Tyler Johnson had a great season. 29 goals, 18 assists, 47 points. He matched his career high in goals with a career-low one power play goal, he was a +16 goals player at 5v5, and was one third of the dominant Johnson - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov line. At $5 million per season for a 28-year-old, that sounds like pretty good value.

But when looking a little deeper, things start to look a little concerning as to whether the generic metrics above provide a representative snapshot of Johnson’s year. There were a lot of caveats brought to Johnson’s season that need to be taken into consideration.

For one, we like his goal metrics, but how lucky was he and was this season sustainable. Second, he played with elite teammates, so how did he affect them? Was he helping or not? Is he still affecting play from the wing? Third, was Johnson helping on defense relative to his team’s lofty standards?

Shooting Percentage

Right off the bat, Johnson’s shooting percentage (17.8%) jumped three points higher than his previous career best (14.6%). If he had shot his career average (13.4%) on his 163 shots in the year, he would’ve had a much more conservative 21-22 goals. Except for an elite few shooters in the league who reliably score at a higher rate than everyone else, shooting percentage is based on probability and will regress to its average over time. Basically, Johnson will not shoot 17% next year. Likely, he will shoot around 13% and go back to his previous production.

Another way to check to see if a player had a lucky season that will be hard to replicate is if their goals for rate is (significantly) higher than their expected goals for rate. At even strength, a player will tend to score within a few goals of their predicted value, so when they’ve overshot where we expect them to be, it either means they are an elite player who has special skills that can beat a goalie from more places, or they’re poised to regress the following year. Evolving Hockey has one of the most accurate expected goals predictors so we’re using their chart that displays goals and expected goals.

On their chart for Johnson, you can see the first bar in a healthy spot. That was his goals for value. The next two charts show his expected goals and shot attempts for. Unfortunately, Johnson this year was supposed to be in the range of average when it came to offensive production, but was able to use likely a combination of a good team, linemates, and a shooting spike to do better.

This year was a great accomplishment and no one is taking that away, but looking ahead to next year and the next five with him under contract, we shouldn’t expect Johnson to play as well as he did. Could he beat the odds again and score 30 next year? Sure. But it’s not likely.

RAPM is a chart that displays where a player ranks relative to the league average in five statistics at even strength and three from the power play.
Evolving-Hockey.com

Elite or Not?

The next question to ask is whether Johnson was a positive contributor to his elite teammates or is he dragging them down in any kind of way. The Lightning were an elite team last year in the regular season, so looking at simple percentages wouldn’t be helpful in. Micah Blake McCurdy does these wonderful spider charts you can see below. They map how teammates performed with and without a certain player on the ice with them. Having a line between the two values really helps visualize the movement on the graph and makes it easier to find a trend.

For example, Tyler Johnson is a very consistent player when he’s on the ice and his teammates tend to all play with a strong shots for and a middling/slightly high shots against rate. When Johnson is not on the ice, the players who predominantly play in the top-six tend to carry the same shots for metrics but their shots against go way down (shown by the trend of vertical lines). So defensively, Johnson’s teammates are better without him.

In terms of what this means on the ice, deploying Johnson with elite players doesn’t hurt them offensively, he’s a solid passenger/third wheel. But where they will lose out is in their own zone. I think a duo like Point and Kucherov would do much better with a Ondrej Palat, Zach Hyman, Patric Hornqvist type player who will play well in his own end and work to get the puck back for his elite teammates to do the rest of the work. If Johnson was better defensively, I would say move him back to center on a matchup line and try a player like Anthony Cirelli there, but if he was good defensively, we wouldn’t be having this problem.

Looking at how players perform with and without Tyler Johnson.
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Defense

This was mentioned above on the Evolving Hockey chart. If you go back and look at that, you’ll see in the fourth and fifth columns that Johnson is below the average in preventing shots and expected goals. Going back through the years of his career and looking at past charts on that site, Johnson has always been bad defensively. If you look at Sean Tierney’s work (@ChartingHockey), Johnson tends to be in the “fun” column for players in terms of shots for and against. He tends to give up shots to the same degree as his team takes when he’s on the ice.

That’s his numbers quantitatively. Qualitatively, we can look at his shot maps both offensively and defensively when he’s on and off the ice to find a similar trend. Offensively, the Lightning do a great job of creating shots in the slot and in three shooting areas at the point. With Johnson, those areas remain strong. Relative to the team, he’s on the ice for a lot of offense.

Defensively, however, you can see where things start to break down with him compared to without. First, a higher density of shots are being allowed to come from the point and in more discrete areas. Speculation, but this could be a result of losing board battles and allowing the defensemen time and space to get the puck to the middle of the zone rather than at the edges. In the slot, Johnson and his teammates just give up so much, especially right in front of the net. You can see that the Bolts do a great job creating a protective bubble around their netminders, but that bubble gets deformed and collapses when the Point line is playing defense. They’re allowing shots to get to the middle of the ice and allowing the opposing forwards to collapse in.

Now, I don’t think Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov are the best defensive players in the league, and since they played so much together what they do affects Johnson, so these charts below were never going to be flattering to him. I think what’s important is looking at the “with or without you” spider stats and other data from previous years and seeing if they match this decrease in defensive performance, which they do.

Shots for and shots against with Tyler Johnson on and off the ice.
Micah Blake McCurdy, HockeyViz.com

Now, looking at all three areas used to try and project a player’s performance moving forward, there are no major red flags with Johnson, but there are a lot of small things that are concerning. I worry about whether Johnson can score in the high-20s in goals when he starts his age-29 season next year. I worry that he tends to give up as much as he gets and playing that on an elite line won’t help anyone. And I worry that he’s not helping his teammates as much as someone who makes his kind of money could. I worry that Jon Cooper tried to hide Johnson on that line knowing he’s a liability defensively, and for a team so tightly wound by the salary cap, if that kind of player can be afforded?

I gave Johnson his lowest grade among the writers, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, because I thought he would’ve been a lot better at driving play and being a positive contributor defensively. Basically what I saw this year was someone who made $5 million fall to the background and be a passenger. We haven’t seen 2015 Tyler Johnson in a while and I worry that we won’t see that level of play for the rest of his contract. If Julien BriseBois can jump all the contract hurdles, I think Johnson would do better in a different situation, a place where he can be a sheltered 2C/3C and in exchange the Lightning get more of a utility player that can bring a different aspect to a top line.