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Johnson ready to assume Kings' defensive throne

Saturday, 10.11.2008 / 11:00 AM / Player Profiles

By Eric Stephens - NHL.com Correspondent

Midway through his rookie season with the Los Angeles Kings, Jack Johnson thought it was time to branch out on his own.

It wasn't in the form of taking more chances on the ice, although that day is arriving fast. Johnson liked learning the trade of being an NHL defenseman from his unofficial mentor, one-time Norris Trophy winner and former team captain Rob Blake.

And the comfort level extended all the way to Blake's home, where Johnson stayed upon his arrival in Los Angeles and soon became a playmate to Blake's two children, Jack and Brooke.

But then again, what 21-year-old doesn't want his own place?

"I got it around Christmas," Johnson said. "I used (Coordinator of Player Development) Nelson Emerson's real estate agent. I think Rob was ready for me to go."

As he said that, Johnson broke into a big smile. The months he spent at the Blake's suburban Manhattan Beach home, he said, were a period he called essential to his growth on and off the ice.

The reality now is Johnson is on his own, and the irony is his unofficial mentor was the one ready to go.  

Now that the 38-year-old Blake has signed with Pacific Division-rival San Jose Sharks, Johnson is anticipating a lead role on the Kings' blue line. The transformation already has taken place in the preseason as the former University of Michigan standout has played in three exhibition games, including 27:30 against Phoenix and 29:06 against Colorado, which led the team in both instances.

Eating up large amounts of ice time is what Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi foresaw when he traded for Johnson, the third pick of the 2005 Entry Draft, dealing away center Eric Belanger and defenseman Tim Gleason to Carolina on Sept. 29, 2006.

"Nobody questions this kid's potential or ability, but part of getting better is just gaining experience," Lombardi said. "But the other thing is … yeah, I think it's evident that we feel at this time, we want to start turning over the identity and culture of that room to these young players such as him, (Dustin) Brown and (Anze) Kopitar."

With a youth movement firmly in place, the Kings are throwing Johnson's development into overdrive. It is something the Indianapolis native always has wanted, even if it's coming sooner than he expected.

"There's been a lot of changes," Johnson said. "A lot of younger guys are in here expecting to step up. I expect that of myself and I'm looking forward to the challenge of hopefully being one of the go-to guys on defense. I've been kind of planning on that all summer and getting ready for it."

On becoming a focal point at this stage of his career, he said: "I've always wanted it. As soon as possible, really. That's what every athlete wants, that responsibility and that chance to take over. At the same time, I definitely think it came a little earlier than expected. But I'm looking at it in a positive light and I'm excited about it."

Lombardi said he's being careful not to put too much on Johnson's plate. To the longtime executive, it's about the defenseman evolving and growing throughout the season and the understanding that there will be many peaks and valleys.

The same can be said about the Kings as a whole.

"This team needs to find its soul, and part of finding its soul is going to be these type of players to come through your system and bond together," Lombardi said. "And he's a part of that. But to put that all on him … no way.  One of the things with kids is if you throw that leadership at him, maybe it's too much all at once, then they forget to get better as a player. But I think this group and the support group that's there, I think he'll be able to handle it."

It's where Johnson is now going back to those learning experiences provided by Blake and longtime NHL defenseman Jaroslav Modry, his defense partner for much of last season.

"Just watching what he does,"Johnson said of Blake. "ow he eats, how he sleeps, when he goes to bed – everything. He's a very calm and collected individual. He never panicked on and off the ice. It' something that I treasured seeing, such a calm player and under control."

Of Modry, he said: "e's a very patient player. A lot of that rubbed off on me and I was pretty fortunate to learn from him."

Neither remains, and after the departures of Brad Stuart and Lubomir Visnovsky, Johnson and Tom Preissing are now the longest-tenured Kings defensemen. The Kings did pick up some veteran presence to fill the void by acquiring Sean O'onnell from the Ducks for a conditional draft pick.

"This team needs to find its soul, and part of finding its soul is going to be these type of players to come through your system and bond together. And he's a part of that. But to put that all on him … no way." – Kings' GM Dean Lombardi
Johnson said he spoke with Blake in July after the Kings and the long-time rearguard failed to agree on a contract extension.

"We had talked after the move was made," he said. "He just said things weren't working out. He told me he wanted to stay here, but things just weren't working. It's a business decision. That's a different side to this game. It's a harsh side. But it's reality. Things just didn't work out."

The changes figure to give Johnson every chance to improve upon his rookie season, in which he had 3 goals and 8 assists in 74 games. He'll play in every situation and the additional minutes he'll get, in the absence of top power-play players Blake and Visnovsky, figure to allow him to display more of his offensive side.

To become the franchise defenseman the Kings envision, Johnson will have to use the experiences he went through last season and flourish on his own.

"There're very few rinks I go to now that I haven't seen," Johnson said. "I've pretty much seen every situation there is now. I'm really looking forward to the chance to take over. Do what I watched the other guys do all last year. Be in a position that Rob was and Visnovsky and Stuart. Have the chance to do what they were doing."

Quote of the Day

You don't see many. The [Drew] Doughtys, the [P.K.] Subbans, those are guys that create offense from the back and then on top of that ability, the size that he has. In the West you play against some pretty big players, and being able to clear the crease and contain the [Ryan] Getzlafs and the [Corey] Perrys and [Anze] Kopitars and players like that, we're excited about him going back there.

— Sharks general manager Doug Wilson on Brent Burns returning back to defense