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Johnson takes helm for Norfolk Admirals

by Lindsay Kramer
As a guy who admits he doesn't like to sit around too much, Jim Johnson is in his element.

Johnson was named new head coach of Norfolk on the night of Jan. 16, after a home loss to Adirondack. He then slept for just a couple hours before catching an early morning flight to Phoenix, where he spent some AHL all-star break time with his family. Much of that getaway was passed reviewing game clips, and he cut his vacation short by 36 hours to race back to Norfolk and prepare. Practice was scheduled for Jan. 20, and then it will be on a bus for the ride to Springfield for the start of a three-in-three that weekend.

The Admirals have a lot of work to do, and, at the very least, also have a man ready to clear out his schedule and get after it.

"I almost didn't even come (home). I was sitting in the office, wondering if I should just stay," said Johnson, 47. "This is something I've prepared the last 10-12 years on. I'm ready and eager. I think we can change things right away. We're going to play with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. Our expectations are going to be high for these guys."

Johnson, an associate coach with the team, took over when Darren Rumble was relieved of his job. Johnson inherits a unit whose 36 points at the break are the fewest in the AHL.

Johnson, a veteran of 829 NHL games, started by locking in on an offense whose average of 2.5 goals scored per game ranks 24th in the league. He pinpointed something as simple as the team's dump-ins as a culprit, with too many of them going right to the opposing goalie, thus choking off chances to create turnovers on the forecheck.

He also plans on pushing the Admirals to clog the crease with more traffic and be more aggressive in putting shots on goal.

"We're not creating enough scoring chances," he said. "There're things we need to challenge the players with a little bit. I think the guys will respond. Together, I think we'll get it done."

Johnson approaches his new job with more insight than just what he gleaned through half a season on the Admirals' bench. He worked as Tampa Bay's development coach last season and was in Norfolk to help with the Lightning's prospects several times.

"That's important for them, for me as a coach to understand them as players," he said. "They know what I stand for. We turn the page, get on the same page. I know where we can go with these guys. I have a lot of belief in them."

Dressed for success -- Heavy snow at the AHL all-star event in Portland, Maine earlier this week limited the players' downtime options. So Hamilton netminder Cedrick Desjardins chose a practical approach and went shopping.

Desjardins had packed only one shirt and tie combo for the two days of festivities. That was playing it a little too close, so on the afternoon of the skills competition, Jan. 18, he picked up one more of each.

"I was looking around, and I found one," he said. "If I spill something on it, or spill some spaghetti sauce on it, I'll be OK."

This year, more than ever, Desjardins is realizing the importance of dressing for success.

The breakout performance of Desjardins, a fourth-year pro, is one of the biggest reasons the Bulldogs roared into the all-star break with the most points (59) in the Western Conference. He ranks second in the AHL in goals-against average (1.81), is tied for fifth in save percentage (.929) and places first in shutouts (five) in just 26 games. He set a franchise record in December for longest individual shutout streak, going 212 minutes and 37 seconds without letting a puck get past him.

"You know what? We have a good team. We don't allow a lot of scoring chances. We don't allow a lot of shots," he said. "I was battling to get ice time at the start of the year. To end up at the all-star game, it's a reward for the hard work I've been doing."

Desjardins, 24, put on an individual show at the skills competition by earning the top goalie award for denying 16 of 19 shots. That's the type of raw talent that's allowed him to keep pace with as tough a stretch of friendly competition as any goalie in the league has faced the past few years.

In his first extended action with Hamilton three seasons ago, the Bulldogs also had Jaroslav Halak, Carey Price and Yann Danis. Last season, Desjardins split time with Marc Denis. This season's sterling effort has only served to help keep him on even footing with Curtis Sanford.

"It's tough to get through to the American League if you are not a first-rounder," said the undrafted Desjardins. "I battled to get my ice time. That's the only way you get better. You have good goalies in front of you. You learn from them. I think it's a great recipe for me."
Kulda takes in all in -- Although he's still learning about the pro game, Chicago Wolves second-year defenseman Arturs Kulda knows enough to listen to his elders.

Kulda, 21, has been a frequent pairing with Chris Chelios, who is on the cusp of his 48th birthday. In the 14 games they have been together since Dec. 12, Kulda is plus-15 and Chelios is plus-13.

"Not many people play with a player like Chris," Kulda said. "You better listen to him. He knows hockey, and he knows the game."

"That's important for them, for me as a coach to understand them as players. They know what I stand for. We turn the page, get on the same page. I know where we can go with these guys. I have a lot of belief in them." -- Jim Johnson

Kulda, a seventh-round pick by Atlanta in 2006, is picking things up pretty quickly. He has rung up a plus or even rating in 28 of his 33 games this season overall, he leads the AHL with a plus-29.

His offensive development is following right behind. After going 1-14 in 57 games last season, he is 3-11 through 33 contests this year.

"Maybe it's just one of those things that makes me a good player, playing good position," he said. "It's always being in the right spot. Of course, it's not the best feeling when someone scores. You need to go out the next shift and try to score back. I'm just trying to be a better all around defenseman."

Around the AHL -- Rookie Tyler Ennis of the hometown Portland Pirates was named most valuable player after notching 1 goal and 2 assists for the Canadians in a 10-9 shootout win in the AHL All-Star Game Jan. 19... PlanetUSA defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti (Hartford) set an AHL All-Star skills competition record by completing the fastest skater event in 13.677 seconds Jan. 18. Canadian forward Blair Jones of the Norfolk Admirals claimed the hardest shot contest with a blast clocked at 100.7 miles per hour, becoming just the fourth AHL player in the event's history to top the century mark. ... Milwaukee had seven different players score goals in a victory over the Moose on Jan. 15. It was the second time this season that the Admirals had seven players tally in a single game and it ties the franchise's AHL record for most players to score in a contest. ... Grand Rapids played three home games in three nights last weekend for the second time this season, but just the fifth time in its 14-year history. ... Forward Andrew Desjardins set a Worcester record by playing in his 115th straight game Jan. 15 vs. Portland. ... By beating Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 6-3 on Jan. 17, Springfield won back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 15-18. ... Adirondack's Greg Gilbert tallied his 600th career AHL game as a head coach during a 3-1 win at Norfolk on Jan 16. Gilbert has a career AHL record of 288-228-41-43, with Worcester, Toronto and Adirondack.

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