Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tyler Johnson: The little engine that could for Lightning

By Larry Wigge

Paying the price to win is exactly the procedure that Tyler Johnson follows him. Each game.

He's like a whirling-dervish. Flitting around. Beating the other team to loose pucks. Always being the most active player on the ice.

A teammate once told me that Johnson has a mouse running the wheel inside his head. Get the picture ... from that point on he does a good job of hiding his feelings. But he's got a real good attitude for a little guy.

No, this is a real-life fairy tale. Johnson, 5-feet-9, was passed over by every NHL club in three years he was eligible for the draft. He was cut by a team in the United States Hockey League, the country's top junior league for players age 20 and younger.

He considered giving up hope on the NHL.

"I don't ever look at myself as never been drafted. I don't look at myself any differently," explained Johnson. "It doesn't matter if you're a first rounder, third rounder or undrafted.

"Everyone is going to have the same opportunity. You just have to e-a-r-n it."

Johnson thought about not being drafted. Nobody ever thought his heart has never been measured by height.

Tyler Johnson is from Spokane, Washington. Last year, he helped lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago -- scoring 13 goals and 10 assists in 25 playoff games. He became the first player in the NHL with four multi-goal game in the same season since Jamie Langenbrunner in 2003.

"Tyler Johnson. The bigger the game ... the better he plays," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "In the greatest league in the world on the biggest stage, in the world's most famous arena, it's pretty impressive. It doesn't get any bigger than that."

Johnson had 29 goals in 2014-15 season and then added 13 goals and 10 assists in 26 playoff games for Tampa Bay.  

This season started off the same way for Johnson ... until injuries limited his ice time to 14 goals and 24 assists in 69 games.

Johnson tied the Tampa Bay franchise record for most points in a playoff game when he scored two goals and assisted on two in a 5-2 win in Game 2 of its series against the Detroit Red Wings. The only other four-point game in the playoffs for the Lightning was posted by Vincent Lecavalier with one goal and three assists in Game 2 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Final versus Boston.

He's the first NHL player to tally six points in his team's first two games of a playoff year since 2014, when Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny each scored seven points in the first two games of the Avs' first-round series against Minnesota in Game 1 -- won by the Lightning 3-2 over Detroit.

His first goal in the second game game where big men wander in the blue paint. Johnson was cross-checked to the ice by Dylan Larkin and then he was buried by three or four other Detroit players in the goal crease -- paying the price -- for the first of his two second period goals.

"There's something to be said about this guy's rise to the occasion and for Tyler it's been a small sample size to show that last year playoffs was no fluke," admitted Cooper. "He's definitely an impact player."

Cooper said, "You walk into that kid's house and you look at the trophy mantel and all you see is trophies of where this kid has won. Winning follows that kid."

The little engine that could ...

Defenseman Victor Hedman said, "He never takes a night off. You always know what he's going to give when he's on the ice."

"He's one of those guys that when the lights come on the biggest the stage, the better he plays," said Carolina Hurricanes Bill Peters said.

"Just his speed, and his skill, it all makes him very relentless," Ryan Callahan said. "How much he works on the ice can really frustrate a lot of people."

Johnson was American but Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray kept noticing him at games and events where he was scouting Canadian players in 2007.

Murray couldn't help but focus on the undersized American, who played with a tenacity few possessed.

"I noticed three things about Tyler, and I'm not sure in what order exactly,"  Murray said. "He's tremendously competitive, he's very highly-skilled and he's an elite skater. The only thing he was lacking was height."

Ken Johnson could sense the frustration in his son’s voice. He encouraged Tyler not to worry about the draft snub, to focus on getting better as a hockey player and, most importantly, to enjoy himself out on the ice.
The suggestion was exactly what Tyler needed.

His mom, Debbie, taught kids in the area how to skate. Ken coached hockey and would later coach his son in the years leading up to his junior days.

Johnson began skating at 18 months. When he was four, his parents convinced local organizers to allow him to play in a league where the minimum age was six.

"My parents are kind of influential in the hockey world back home," he says. "It's a smaller town. My mom taught basically all the kids in my area how to skate.

"I started skating when I was really young, so it was just one of those things that was bound to happen."

"There are trends in hockey, it used to be if you were 6-foot-4, 6-5 you were going to be drafted early. The game has changed, speed and hockey IQ are definitely more important," former NHL forward Brendan Morrow said. "Everything is done at a very high pace and when people get to speed, their hands or feet can't keep up. Tyler makes plays while his feet are still moving. Their whole line is that way, but Tyler is the guy in the middle moving the puck."

In Tampa, Johnson had Marty St. Louis as one of his heroes to help him break into the NHL.

"It’s just one of those things that the smaller guys, even Marty St. Louis, kind of opened doors for the smaller guys to get into the league," Johnson said. "You see guys growing up that have the size and kind of the pedigree and everything. A lot of those guys aren't playing anymore. I just always had to work hard."

"I think you're just watching a little bit the changing of the guard," Cooper said, "of maybe Marty looking in the mirror 15 years ago and seeing Tyler Johnson."

Cooper paused, "It will be really a storybook if he's lifting a 35-pound trophy over his head."

Now, that would kind of be a real, life storybook end -- a Stanley Cup for Tyler Johnson.

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