UFA Decisions considers the unrestricted free agents on the Oilers’ roster, starting with the most expensive and working down. Today we consider Aaron Johnson.
Aaron Johnson has had a nomadic start to a career that will likely continue in the same vein. He was originally a third round pick by Columbus, but he has also had stints with the Islanders, Blackhawks, Flames and Rangers.
Johnson was drafted out of the QMJHL, where he spent four seasons before making the jump to the professional level. Back in his draft year, there was a lot to like; he brought fair size to the table along with a willingness to play a rough game and he was an effective if unconventional skater. He also possessed intriguing offensive upside; he scored 53 points in his draft year and would eclipse the point-per-game mark before leaving junior. He also had drawbacks: his defensive zone coverage was not especially good and he could get caught chasing the puck.
Johnson made his NHL debut just before the lockout, and served the Blue Jackets as a reserve defenceman before establishing himself as a regular in 2006-07. He’s a solid third-pairing guy; he passes the puck well enough and his weaknesses aren’t exposed as long as his minutes and opponents are managed. During his brief post-deadline stint with the Oilers, he was asked to step into a more difficult role and the results were uneven – the offensive flair was there but it was easy to see the defensive struggles that have made him a journeyman.
Still, as I said, used in a limited role Johnson can be an asset. Chicago used him sparingly last season with good results, and he’s actually a plus-13 over his NHL career, which is a very respectable number for someone who has spent most of his NHL minutes as a bottom-pairing defenceman on bottom-feeding teams (aside from that one season in Chicago, Johnson has never played for a playoff team).
Johnson would undoubtedly be cheap to acquire; I imagine that an NHL-only contract at league-minimum would be enough to keep him in the fold. Last season, he was paid $500,000 and it was the first season of his career where he didn’t at least dip his toes in minor-league play.
What I’d Do As G.M.
I’m not wild about Johnson as a player; he’s now 27 and he hasn’t been able to file off the rough edges enough to deserve elevated ice-time with an NHL club. If he were able to do so, he might be a very useful asset – with increased ice-time, he could put up significant point totals for a defenceman.
That said, while I may not harbour much hope that Johnson can develop into the top-four defenceman, he’s a perfectly acceptable bottom-pairing player. He’s dirt cheap, and he’s better at the on-ice components of the job than either Jason Strudwick or the AHL players called up to fill out the roster next year.
In short, I might look around and see if there were other bottom-pairing guys more appealing, but if Johnson were willing to sign on for a league-minimum contract in exchange for a one-way deal, I’d gladly slot him into the number seven position on the depth chart. This would allow players like Peckham and Chorney to return to the AHL to start next season (given the way injuries work, at least one of them would be up in short order anyway) and give the Oilers a seventh man they could be comfortable seeing in a five or six role when the inevitable injuries hit.
What I Expect To Happen
It’s very difficult to know how the Oilers view Johnson; I haven’t seen much published either way, although there were a few positive articles early after he was acquired.
I expect Tambellini sees Johnson as an expendable part, and I suspect the Oilers will decide to keep Jason Strudwick around as seventh defenceman, and allow Johnson to go to free agency.