Pens to make risky free agent move

PITTSBURGH — Barring a last-minute hitch, the Penguins will sign defenseman Jack Johnson today when NHL free agency officially opens.

That would mean their biggest offseason acquisition is a player who was a healthy scratch in the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That doesn’t sound like someone worth a five-year investment for just over $16 million, especially for a franchise that tightropes the salary cap.

Johnson is 31 in a league that favors young fresh legs, although defensemen have a longer shelf life than forwards. Plus while 31 isn’t prime time, it isn’t exactly ancient, either. Sidney Crosby turns 31 next month, and he’s still pretty frisky.

You might also put an asterisk on Johnson’s playoff inactivity given the coach making the decision was the always-volatile John Tortorella.

Tortorella’s mood often ranges from bad to unapproachable, and he has a tendency to doghouse certain players. Obviously Johnson fell into disfavor in Columbus.

Reasons to like Johnson? He has a history of quality play before Columbus. No doubt he’ll feel liberated by escaping Tortorella’s gulag. He was a prep school teammate of Crosby’s, and that has to add to his comfort level.

You also have to assume the Penguins have vetted Johnson via Crosby. Crosby wouldn’t put in a word for his buddy unless he was certain he can help the team.

The Penguins under Jim Rutherford also have a pretty impressive record evaluating players. Justin Schultz had been consigned to the scrap heap in Edmonton. The Penguins rescued him in exchange for a third-round draft choice, and he helped them win two championships.

Getting away from Tortorella should refresh Johnson. Reuniting with Crosby can only help, too.

Unless Rutherford can swing another deal that sheds significant salary, this will probably be the big move of the summer for the Penguins.

Is it enough? It’s a gamble, to be certain.

But the free agent market is weak for defenseman and that’s the area the Penguins most need to upgrade.

Three years with a corresponding reduction in money would be more comfortable, but apparently that’s not available. So this is the deal.

Having both Rutherford and Crosby behind it makes it seem viable.

Family business

One of the players at the Penguins’ prospect development camp was a 22-year-old redshirt freshman from Arizona State. Austin Lemieux is his name.

Yes, he’s the only son of Penguins’ co-owner Mario Lemieux. His dream is to play in the NHL, but the deck is stacked against anyone who is just launching a college career at 22.

Give him credit. It can’t be easy to choose this path when your father was an instant Hall of Famer who has a 199-point season on his resume. He could get 100 points and only be half as good as his father.

That’s a legacy that’s difficult to chase.

Headed out?

The Pirates player most likely to be traded in the coming weeks is Josh Harrison. Reasons?

1. There’s a market for him. His versatility would be a great fit with a championship-caliber team.

2. There are replacements for him. The Pirates have middle infielders ready to move up from the minor leagues.

3. Diminishing returns. Harrison has two years left on his contract for $10.5 million and $11.5 million. (They can be bought out for $1 million and $500,000). Those are not good investments in a player who will be 31 and 32 in those years, especially with younger players in the system.

New meaning

One of the popular new baseball stats is “chase rate.”

There was a time when that term had a whole different meaning in baseball.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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