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LA Story: Johnson return close

by Eric Stephens
LOS ANGELES -- A struggling Los Angeles Kings team that's trying to stay within range of a playoff spot in the rugged Western Conference is expected to get a big boost on the blue line following the NHL All-Star break, if not before.

Jack Johnson, who suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the second game of the season against San Jose, has been participating in contact drills at the team's facility in suburban El Segundo. Johnson has missed the last 40 games after undergoing surgery in October.

Johnson said he is still working with a timetable of returning after the Jan. 25 All-Star game.

"Nothing's changed," he said Wednesday. "I'm on schedule. I'm cleared for contact in practices and hopefully I'll be ready for the first game after All-Star break."

Kings coach Terry Murray is clearly upbeat about Johnson's progress and intimated the possibility of his talented second -- year defender suiting up on the club's upcoming road trip to Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado.

"He's real close," Murray said. "I'm penciling him in. He's that close for me. It's not going to be tomorrow [against Detroit], it's not going to be ... I can't say. I don't know after that.

"It will not be tomorrow. But I do have a pencil out and I have him into the lineup now and looking forward to getting the games under way."

Johnson said returning before the break hasn't been a consideration -- at least to him. The 22 -- year -- old former No. 3 overall pick of the Carolina Hurricanes had three goals and 11 points in his 74 -- game rookie season a year ago.
"I'm on schedule. I'm cleared for contact in practices and hopefully I'll be ready for the first game after All-Star break." -- Jack Johnson
"That thought hasn't even crossed my mind," he said. "The risk isn't worth the reward of playing two or three extra games versus risking further injury. That's completely out of the question now."

When asked directly if Johnson would see action before the break, Murray said, "I'll have to have some conversations with several people before I answer that. But it's very close to happening." Murray added that he's already toyed with potential defense pairings and that finding a spot for Johnson is "not going to be an issue."

Meanwhile, the Kings' other prized young defenseman, Drew Doughty, remains day -- to -- day with a thigh bruise after getting hit by Tampa Bay forward Evgeny Artyukhin in the Lightning's 3 -- 1 win Monday night. Murray ruled Doughty out for Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings.

"It's almost like a charley horse kind of injury," he said. "Day to day is where it's at. I think it'd be difficult after a couple of days of not being out there, to have to get into a game tomorrow, although a young guy could do it."
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