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Johnson has coped with rookie trials, tribulations

by Brian Compton

Jack Johnson's eager to plan for bigger and better things in Los Angeles come next season.
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It was just under three years ago when Jack Johnson stood on the podium at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa with the impression that he would begin -- and perhaps finish -- his professional career with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Less than a year and a half later, everything changed. Johnson’s decision to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season prompted the Hurricanes to send him to the Los Angeles Kings, along with defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, in exchange for defenseman Tim Gleason and forward Eric Belanger on Sept. 29, 2006.

Six months later, Johnson was in Hollywood. After the Wolverines were ousted from the 2007 NCAA Tournament in Denver, his college career was over. He immediately joined the Kings and made his NHL debut on March 29, 2007 against the Vancouver Canucks.

“It just introduced me to the business side of the NHL,” Johnson said of being traded before ever appearing in a game. “Carolina needed to make a business move, and I respect their decision. I wanted to stay one more year in college. Now I’m in L.A.”

Johnson has learned more about hockey in general this season too, with a season-ending injury being the latest lesson. The defenseman suffered a non-displaced fracture to his right foot in a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 18. That ended his season at 74 games. The final totals were three goals, 11 assists, a minus-19 and lots of learning.

While some would think a 21-year-old would have a difficult time fighting the distractions a city like Los Angeles could provide, Johnson has adjusted quite nicely.

“It’s pretty neat,” Johnson said of life in Southern California. “There’s not much of a better life than being a professional athlete in Los Angeles. It can be as easy as you want to make it. I live in a pretty quiet area in Manhattan Beach. I just do my thing. I get up in the morning, go to practice and live a pretty normal life, really. I don’t live the extravagant Hollywood life.”

Instead, Johnson is more interested in progressing into one of the League’s top defensemen. While the Kings’ struggles this season helped contribute to his minus-19, there is little question Johnson is an important building block. He logged at least 23 minutes of ice time in 15 of his last 19 full games and was third among NHL rookies with 21:41 average ice time per game at the time of his injury. As of March 21, he was second among rookies with 136 blocked shots and also played a career high 31:44 in a Feb. 10 game against Columbus. Johnson also was recognized for his potential back in January, when he was named to the NHL YoungStars Game in Atlanta.

“I guess people recognize I’ve had a good year,” Johnson said. “I feel privileged to be here. I’m feeling good about the way I’ve played so far.”

So is Kings coach Marc Crawford. While Los Angeles is basically playing out the schedule at this point, Crawford is pleased with the way Johnson has developed this season.

“He’s a wonderful skater, and he’s just really gifted with the puck,” Crawford said. “He has a compete level that ranks up there with anybody. I just really like the way he plays.”

That being said, Crawford is bringing Johnson along slowly. He has been asked to concentrate on his defensive game this season. Down the road? Well, that’s a different story.

“He doesn’t get a chance to play the power play for us, but he will,” Crawford said. “In some ways that’s been good for him because he has been able to come in and concentrate on his defensive game, and for a young defenseman, that’s probably the right way to start. We know he’s got good offensive ability. We know he’s got great creativity.”

Johnson knows a lot about creativity. In 2002, he played high school hockey alongside someone who soon became his best friend. His name is Sidney Crosby.

Johnson and Crosby became buddies when they met at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s School in Faribault, Minnesota in 2002. They were the lone underclassmen to play for the school’s hockey team. In 2003, the pair helped lead Shattuck to the USA Hockey Tier I Midget National Championship. Johnson had 42 points that season -- or 120 fewer than Crosby. Nonetheless, the charismatic defenseman was on the fast track to the big time.

“You knew back in high school that he was going to be really special,” Johnson said of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain. “I didn’t know quite then in 10th grade that he wasn’t going to be this good this soon, but I definitely knew at some point that he was going to be as dominant as he is now.”    

“Right now, we’re in last place and things can only get better. The team’s obviously sick of losing, and obviously you can learn a lot from losing." - Jack Johnson
Baseball was a horse of a different color, although Johnson was just as protective of Crosby on the diamond as he was on the ice. There was one game they were playing for Shattuck-Saint Mary’s when an opposing pitcher brushed Crosby back. Johnson didn’t appreciate it.

“We were playing baseball together, and some pitcher threw pretty high on him,” Johnson said, fighting back laughter. “It almost hit him in the head. I got up to bat, and the first pitch came and I just dropped my bat and charged the mound and went after the pitcher. I didn’t play in any more baseball games that year.”

With his baseball career in the rear-view mirror, Johnson now focuses strictly on hockey. More importantly, he’s eager to plan for bigger and better things in Los Angeles come October.

“Obviously, we haven’t had as good of a year as we wanted to,” Johnson said. “Right now, we’re in last place and things can only get better. The team’s obviously sick of losing, and obviously you can learn a lot from losing. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just winning off the bat.”

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