“He’s five-foot-eight, 5-9, whatever it is,” Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said.
But he finished seventh in regular-season scoring in the American Hockey League this past season, recording 31 goals and 68 points in 75 games with the Norfolk Admirals, for who he made his professional debut.
“He can play,” Admirals head coach Jon Cooper said.
“He’s had success everywhere he’s gone,” Cooper added.
Proving that there is more to Johnson than just what shows up on the stats sheet, too.
As a 17-year-old, Johnson was honored as the Western Hockey League’s postseason MVP. He was a rookie then, but still managed to help lead the Spokane Chiefs to a Memorial Cup title in 2007-08. Two years later, he showcased his skills on the international stage as he won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championships. Then, last season, his 53 goals led all WHL skaters while his 115 points came one off from leading all players in the three leagues that make up the junior Canadian Hockey League.
Albeit now only 21 years old, Johnson looks to bring that same championship pedigree to an Admirals team that throws the anchors aweigh beginning Friday against the Toronto Marlies in the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals.
“I’ve been fortunate to play on some pretty good teams prior to coming to the Admirals, and I don’t think this one is much different,” Johnson said. “During the season I saw a lot of guys step into their roles, including myself, and the team has really been gelling for a while now, so hopefully we can continue that and win a Calder Cup.”
As someone who has spent the majority of his hockey career in predominantly winning environments, Johnson added that the many similarities between the current Admirals team and the championship-winning clubs he’s played on in the past reaffirms his confidence that Norfolk has what it takes to attain its ultimate goal.
While winning a championship is considered to be an arduous challenge in and of itself, it is perhaps no more difficult than the obstacles Johnson has already had to overcome just to earn his shot in professional hockey.
Undrafted, Johnson said he often felt he was overlooked by scouts due to his size. But rather than give up the dream of playing hockey, he remained confident in his abilities, which ultimately proved to be a remunerative strategy when Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz approached Johnson and convinced him to come play for his hometown club.
He recorded 13 goals and added 22 assists in his rookie season with Spokane, only to increase both his goal and point totals in each of the next three seasons. Overall, in Johnson’s four seasons as a Chief, he totaled 128 goals, 154 assists and 282 points in 266 regular-season games, while all the while playing on a team that never finished worse than 22 games over .500. Only then did he receive the look he not only desired, but deserved, as he signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Lightning in March 2011.
Johnson prepares to handle a faceoff during the Admirals' Semifinal series versus the St. John's IceCaps (Photo by John Wright / Norfolk Admirals)
“Looking back, I would have loved to have more teams come and talk to me at the beginning,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I really just loved playing hockey and used that as motivation and as a chip on my shoulder to go out there and prove myself and to keep going.”
While determination may be to credit for earning him long-awaited recognition, it is his uncanny ability to adapt to new roles, and rather quickly, that is attributed to his success thus far on the ice.
Upon arriving in Spokane, Johnson played more in a shutdown role as the Chiefs already had two top scoring lines in-tact. The duties didn’t exactly jive with his offensive skills set, but over time, it did allow him to play against opponents’ top lines and help him become a much more solid two-way player.
Johnson also seemed to take the experience with him, as this past season in Norfolk, his first in the professional ranks, appeared to make for a seamless transition up from the junior leagues.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy, because there were a lot of things, especially at the beginning of the year, that I had to work on,” Johnson added. “A lot of my teammates and coaches helped me out a lot and I was able to finish strong the last two months.”
When asked what improvements he saw in Johnson’s game that were among the most impressive, Cooper pointed to the forward’s play in his own end, along with his ability to be an efficient penalty killer.
“He’s not big, but he never shies away from battling for pucks, and he has great speed, which helped him really blossom at the defensive end,” Cooper said.
He also possesses superior skating skills and is tremendous in his ability to win faceoffs, which makes him invaluable on both the power play and penalty kill units, further adding to his appeal of being able to play in a number of different situations.
All of that, in addition to his goal and point production, is what has him poised not only to be a key cog in Norfolk’s quest for a Calder Cup, but just as much a bright spot for the Lightning’s future. For now, at least, Johnson keeps a narrow focus.
“Just take one day at a time and choose to get better every day,” Johnson said. “You can never stop working on anything, so that’s all I’m really looking to do throughout the rest of the playoffs and going into this summer.”