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Johnson eager to display his game full time

by Evan Grossman / NHL.com

 

NHL.com's 2007-08 Kings Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster


If you don’t know who Jack Johnson is, don’t worry. You will soon enough.

Drafted No. 3 overall in 2005, two slots behind his buddy Sidney Crosby, Johnson has been preparing for his first full NHL season. He made a five-game cameo for the Los Angeles Kings at the end of last season following a brilliant two-year career at the University of Michigan. But this time around, the crown jewel of the Kings’ system is in it for the long haul.

Kings fans should be happy about that. Very happy.

That’s because Johnson has been touted as one of those can’t-miss prospects, a combination of Scott Stevens for his heat-seeking, board-shaking hits, and Scott Niedermayer, for his fluid skating and offensive skills. At Michigan, Johnson was known for both, sometimes laying a huge hit and then taking the puck the length of the ice. Going between his legs to undress an enemy defenseman was also not out of the question.

After playing two years at the University of Michigan, defenseman Jack Johnson is ready to burst onto the NHL scene with the Los Angeles Kings this season.
“That was really kind of a tag, and I don’t think Jack wanted a tag on him,” Wolverines head coach Red Berenson said. “If you watch him play, he’ll look for that big hit. But you can’t say Scott Stevens because Jack is more offensively gifted than Scott Stevens was. But he’s got to find his role in the NHL. I think he’s a little bit of a Scott Stevens, a little bit of a Rob Blake. He’s got some of Niedermayer’s offensive instincts.

“But he’s going to be a Jack Johnson-type player,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys you can take pieces of and say, ‘Jack plays like him.’ He’s going to be a fun player to watch. Now is he going to be a star in the NHL in September or October? No. But he’s going to be a young defenseman, who with some direction and mentoring and good experience, I think will grow into a star in the NHL.”

It’s that skill, swagger and tenacity that quickly won over Michigan fans. In his two years at Ann Arbor, Johnson led the team in penalty minutes his freshman year and by his second season, he led the country in goal scoring by a defenseman. All the while, the home fans were conjuring new chants to serenade Johnson with at home games, where his father also got into the act by leading the school band during intermissions. The Johnson’s were a main attraction at Michigan games.

“He attracts a following,” Berenson said. “Part of that following might hate him. For example, in the World Junior tournament, he took a shot at one of the Canadian players and after that, they booed him every time he touched the puck in every game. So he had a following up there, but it wasn’t very positive. But he definitely had a following. And so, around here, our fans love him.

“Even his dad got in on the action,” he said. “Turns out, we didn’t know it, but he was dancing between periods. The fans found out who he was, and they were saying, ‘Dance Mr. Johnson!’ And then every time something happened, Jack seemed to be either right in the middle of it, or a big part of it. He’s a physical player, he’s an emotional player, he’s an offensive player, and yet, he’s a defenseman who I think will grow into a real top NHL defenseman.”

That’s what the Kings were hoping when they traded for Johnson last year. Originally drafted third-overall in 2005 by Carolina, the Hurricanes grew impatient waiting for Johnson to live out his college dreams. Turns out, that’s also why Anaheim didn’t take him second that year. Nobody was willing to wait for Johnson to play at Michigan. So, the Hurricanes traded him to Los Angles last year, a trade that could eventually come back to bite them.

“He was too good to stay for four years,” Berenson said.

While the time spent at Michigan may have been a hassle for some NHL teams, the two years there were an invaluable learning experience for the 20-year-old defenseman.

“I wouldn’t trade those two years for the world,” Johnson said. “They were great. I think playing for coach Berenson was probably the best thing that happened to my hockey career, and I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t stay there those two years.”

He also would not have achieved such an early cult-hero status. The Internet is loaded with Jack Johnson videos compiled by friends and Michigan fans, from highlights of his cannon slap shot taking the mask off an opposing goaltender, to massive hits all over the ice, to the outrageous, such as spoofs crediting Johnson for saving the planet or rescuing Elian Gonzalez.

It was easy to find highlights of Johnson dominating in college. But the NHL figures to be a mightier test for this mighty defenseman. Berenson says his student is ready.

“He’s as ready as any player I’ve had as an underclassman,” he said, high praise from the coach that also mentored Marty Turco and John Madden. “There’s not many players that I would endorse and say it’s time for you to turn pro. But Jack is. He has been in that mode and he needs a challenge at the next level, whereas most kids have to stay and play at least four years before they’re ready for that. And even then, they may wind up playing a year or two in the minors. But Jack is a special player and he’s worked hard to get himself where he is, and he needs that challenge.”

"There's not many players that I would endorse and say it's time for you to turn pro. But Jack is."
-- Red Berenson

A match made in heaven, Johnson needs a challenge, and the Kings could use a young player like him to join an already impressive stable of kids like Anze Kopitar. While he might not be met with the kind of fanfare that he received at Michigan, Johnson is prepared for his rookie season, comparing it to his freshman year of college.

“He’s got all the passion to play and he’s got the skill,” Berenson said. “Really, the next step is just getting the experience at the NHL level and figuring out how he can be successful. To those of us that have watched him since he was 10-years-old, he just keeps getting better and better and better. He’s a throwback to an old-time hockey player. He’s got the passion, the work ethic and he just goes out and plays.”

As dangerous with the puck as he is without it, Johnson was asked if he’d rather deliver a crushing hit or score a big goal. He has to think about that for a second.

“That’s a tough call,” he said. “It probably depends on the person. “I’d probably want to score a big goal instead of the big hit though, because goals win games. Big hits are momentum swingers and give you more of an intimidation factor, but being able to score goals and stop goals wins hockey games. That’s pretty much my job, to stop goals from being scored and being able to contribute on offense is a bonus.”

Johnson remains close friends with Crosby, his prep school teammate. While Crosby has emerged as the elite young talent in the NHL, his buddy Jack is just getting his feet wet. Whether Johnson’s destined for the same kind of success is one of the subplots for the upcoming season.

“He was giving me grief, telling me he was going to run me the first chance he gets,” Johnson said of when the Kings and Penguins play later this season. “But that will be fun. It’ll be the first time I get to play against him. Obviously it’ll be a pain in the (butt) playing against him, but we’re both going to go at it pretty hard.”

Johnson doesn’t know how to play any other way. Once he gets his bearings in the NHL, scouts believe he can be a huge star in the League for years to come.

But first, he’s got to go through his rookie season.

“There’s going to be an establishing period, pretty much the entire year,” Johnson said. “You’re there to try to establish yourself and prove to everyone else you belong here, but I’m going to be doing that all year, trying to prove to everybody that I belong here and I’m not hopefully a flash in the pan.”

NHL.com's 2007-08 Kings Season Preview Package:
Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster

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