Johnson Ready to Take the Next Step
The numbers jump out at you. Tyler Johnson notched 60 goals and 129 points in 85 games, including the playoffs, during his final season of junior hockey.
But having the ability to produce offense is just a part of the Lightning prospect’s game.
“If he never scores a point, he’ll be a very good player for us,” Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray said. “He was the second leading scorer in the Western Hockey League last year, but a big strength for him is his defensive ability and how smart he is. Spokane had the leading power play and penalty kill in the league and he was a big part of that. He is a very good two-way player with speed.”
Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound center, has compiled many big-time accomplishments, including being named the WHL playoff MVP as a 17-year-old, winning a Memorial Cup title and earning a gold medal with the United States in the 2010 World Junior Championships.
But like the Lightning’s Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis, Johnson somehow never got drafted. After finishing an outstanding four seasons with his hometown Spokane Chiefs, the Bolts signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract in March.
Johnson attended development camps for other teams the last few years, but this is his first as a pro. Johnson showed his hockey sense, speed and quick hands as his 3-on-3 team went undefeated in scrimmages Monday.
“It’s been awesome being around the guys and knowing they are going to be my teammates down the road,” said Johnson, who turns 21 July 29. “It’s good to get a new start.”
In many ways, it’s his first fresh start.
Johnson seemed destined to be with the Spokane Chiefs, founded in 1985-86. He grew up watching games and envisioning what it would be like to be in the uniform.
But like most high-level players at a young age, the temptation of going away from home to try and take bigger steps toward an NHL career was enticing.
“There was a time in my life when I thought I was going to college,” said Johnson, who was picked in the 11th round of the 2005 WHL bantam draft. “But things changed for me. Chiefs GM Tim Speltz [convinced me] to play for the team and it was a great experience to play at home. I wouldn’t take anything back.”
Johnson had 13 goals and 22 assists as a rookie with the Chiefs in 2007-08, playing with Lightning goalie prospect Dustin Tokarski. He had five goals in 21 postseason games on the way to the Memorial Cup.
It was a season he will treasure forever. Johnson soaked it all in, watching how a team with talented players bonded together for a long run, how it took players who accepted different roles to win. Johnson’s defensive awareness blossomed.
“We had two top scoring lines and I had to adapt to a shutdown role,” Johnson said. “I played the whole season against the opposition’s first line.
“I like to think of myself as a two-way player. With my size, I’m going to have to work harder and I’m fine with that. I’ve never been given anything.”
Johnson improved to 26 goals and 61 points his second season and 35 and 71 in 2009-10. In his first three seasons at Spokane, he had a combined plus/minus rating of plus-57.
Murray compares Johnson to former Selke Trophy winner Steve Kasper, who was 5-8, 175, and played the last 47 games of his career with the Lightning in 1992-93. He was nicknamed “The Friendly Ghost” or “The Shadow.”
“He’s not big or physical,” Murray said. “But he’s between the man and the puck all the time. He will go in and win battles for loose pucks, his speed allows him to defend well and he gets in lanes, block shots and he has really good vision.”
Johnson, who Murray said is excellent winning face-offs, moved out of the shadow of some talented line-mates and became a go-to offensive player this season for Chiefs’ coach Don Nachbaur.
“I think I just matured as a player and got a lot better,” Johnson said. “I worked very hard in the off season.”
Now he is a pro. Now he gets a chance to show teams they made a mistake in not drafting him.
Johnson is likely to start with Norfolk of the American Hockey League, where he will try to climb the steps toward the NHL.
“We think he can go right away to the AHL level and be a contributor,” Murray said. “He needs to add strength and learn the speed of the pro game, but we will let him develop at his own pace.”