Ashley Johnston and the role of the shutdown defender

The Metropolitan Riveters captain

Metropolitan Riveters captain Ashley Johnston has been a cornerstone of her franchise’s defense for three years. Many consider the 2017 All-Star to be one of the best defenders in the league despite her modest offensive production. Why? Because Johnston is one of the best shutdown defenders in the NWHL.

Johnston’s defensive game is all about sound positioning and taking space away from her opponents with her size and reach. The 6-foot tall Canadian is the tallest woman in the NWHL; it stands to reason that she possess the longest reach in the game. That long reach gives Johnston an area of influence on the ice that other NWHL players simply don’t have. And the veteran defender knows how to use it.

Today at the Ice Garden we’re going to turn the spotlight on two consecutive shifts that Johnston played against the Buffalo Beauts on February 3.

The first shift was a prime example of Johnston using her frame to her advantage in the defensive zone. The Beauts went on the power play just 68 seconds into the game. Sarah Edney moved the puck to Lisa Chesson; Chesson carried the puck into the right faceoff dot to get a shot on net, likely in the hope of creating a rebound. Johnston left her post at the top of the crease marking Corinne Buie and attacked the shooting lane. She dropped to a knee and blocked the shot, without screening goaltender Katie Fitzgerald.

Just 15 seconds later Johnston applied pressure on Chesson along the right wing boards. After realizing that Chesson wanted to the move the puck to Rebecca Vint in the corner, the Riveters’ captain lashed out with her stick and tipped the pass. It was a smart, subtle defensive play that disrupted the flow of Buffalo’s power play. It was also an example of how bigger defenders can use their reach to spoil shooting and passes lanes.

Johnston is not blessed with explosive quickness or great speed, but she does have great instincts for gap control. Johnston regularly has to defend against rushes from some of the fastest women in hockey.  In a frame-by-frame breakdown below we can see her take the the slot away from a rushing Haley Scamurra, forcing her to the outside. By the time Scamurra reached the right faceoff dot she had nearly skated around Johnston, but the stalwart defender managed to dispossess the All-Star forward of the puck with a timely stick check.

This has become something of a trademark to Johnston’s game and, unfortunately, it is not something that ends up in the box score. Johnston is adept at using her size and reach to take space away from attacking forwards. This forces them to take low-percentage shots from the outside. It’s not exactly the stuff of highlight reels, but it is something that her coaches and goaltenders deeply appreciate.

The Union College alumna also has tremendous discipline. Despite Johnston’s edge in size and strength over opposing forwards she’s rarely watching the game from the penalty box. The majority of her penalties are stick infractions; hooking or tripping calls. The rest have been directly tied to after-the-whistle brawls or Johnston taking exception with a forward jamming away at a puck covered by her goaltender. One has to imagine that her size and experience playing rugby makes her stand out when tempers flare after the whistle.

Interestingly — according to the box scores — “Stretch” has never been called for body checking in 45 games of NWHL regular season hockey. Johnston wields her size and strength responsibly. She can overpower opposing players when she needs to, but she remains ever-aware of where the line is. Doing that in a league with infamously inconsistent officiating is no small task.

It’s also worth mentioning that Johnston leads all NWHL defenders with a +10 rating. The plus/minus statistic is something of a blunt instrument in the analysis of player performance, but it is one of the few tools we have at our disposal in the women’s professional game. Johnston’s impressive rating suggests that things rarely go poorly for the Riveters when she’s on the ice. And the eye test confirms that.

Johnston may be playing fewer minutes this year because of the Riveters’ stacked blue line, but her role to the team is no less vital. Her game has no bells and whistles attached to it; she plays smart, hard, honest hockey at both even strength and on the penalty kill. Johnston is the definition of a franchise shutdown defender.