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Lightning's Johnson continues to prove critics wrong

by Corey Long

TAMPA -- Tyler Johnson has heard it all before. He's not big enough, he's not tough enough, he needs to do more of this, he needs to do more of that.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward has heard it and he's managed to succeed. Johnson, a four-year pro out of Spokane, Wash., has proven his rookie season in the NHL was no fluke.

Although he's no longer on the top line with center Steven Stamkos, Johnson is on the Lightning's most productive line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. After being named to the NHL All-Rookie team and a Calder Trophy finalist in 2013-14, Johnson was selected to play in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game, although he did not participate because he was injured.

"That was pretty unfortunate," Johnson said. "I was hoping I could play in the game but I didn't. It was still a good experience to be there and be acknowledged by the fans."

Tyler Johnson
Tyler Johnson
Center - TBL
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 59
SOG: 161 | +/-: 30
Johnson leads the Lightning in points (59) and assists (36). His 23 goals are tied for second. In a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, he became the fastest undrafted player in NHL history to score 50 goals, doing it in 156 games to beat Dustin Penner's mark by one game.

Don't expect Johnson to boast about that accomplishment or any other.

"I don't think you wear it as a badge or anything," Johnson said about not being drafted. "It's a nice accomplishment to score goals and be successful whether you were drafted or not. I try to go out there and do my job and help my team win."

Johnson said he's only looking ahead to the next opportunity to make a play that will keep the Lightning in contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

"Maybe when the season is over you can look back and think about what you did or being selected to the All-Star Game," Johnson said. "But right now we're in a fight for seeding in the playoffs, and when every game counts there isn't time to focus on individual things."

Kucherov is a little more willing to brag about his linemate and said Johnson's production on the ice comes from his work ethic off it and in practice.

"He makes it look easy at times, but he works very hard to make it look that way," Kucherov said. "I love playing with him. He always seems to make the right pass or be in the right place."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper looks at other elements of Johnson's game that have improved, including his play away from the puck and his overall intensity on the ice.

"I think Tyler is just the type of guy that loves hockey so much he's willing to do anything you ask him to," Cooper said. "That's the beauty of his game, that's probably why his teammates respect him so much. He's not a big guy at all but he's not afraid of the physical play. He makes plays without the puck. He does a lot of little things that you don't see and they lead to the big opportunities."

In a fair world, the 24-year-old would have been selected in the NHL Draft. His credentials included helping the Spokane Chiefs win the Western Hockey League championship and being named Most Valuable Player of the WHL playoffs in 2008 as a 17-year-old rookie.

Johnson scored three goals to help the United States win the gold medal in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship.

However, at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Johnson wasn't going to impress anyone with his physical stature. So he went undrafted and participated in three NHL developmental camps before signing a free-agent contract with the Lightning in 2011.

"It's always frustrating to know you can do something and be on the outside while other people have success," Johnson said. "People had questions about my size and I think I've proved most of them wrong and I hope it's no longer an issue. It's nothing I try to think about. I am what I am and I think I've been productive as a player."

It's definitely not an issue in the Lightning locker room, where Johnson's contributions and leadership qualities are invaluable on a young team looking to make a lengthy run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"He's a big part of this team and I'm glad he's here," Stamkos said. "He's a great playmaker and when you see how hard he works on the ice and the way he skates and the way he trains and practices, it's good that he's being recognized for his play. He's a good teammate and a person that leads by example."

Like most of his teammates, Johnson is focused on the Lightning's postseason prospects and he believes that what he does in the playoffs will be a true test of his success as a player.

"The playoffs are why you play the game," Johnson said. "You work all these months to give yourself an opportunity to play for a championship and be the best team in the [NHL]. I want us to be in the mix to win a Stanley Cup."

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