Namath. Montana. Musial. Those are but a few of the legendary western Pennsylvania prep stars who went on to achieve fame at the pinnacle of professional sports. For years local products littered the National Football League, and to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball, but as amateur hockey continues to take off in Pittsburgh, names such as Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger have made their mark on the National Hockey League.
Soon the latter list could add another name in the form of Stephen Johns, a defenseman from Wampum, Pa. currently suiting up for the United States National Development Team Under-18 squad.
“Red Line Report,” an independent scouting review lists Johns as the No. 15 ranked prospect heading into the 2010 NHL Draft.
Already possessing NHL size at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Johns’ path to the game’s highest level is quite a story. His hometown, which sits just shy of the Ohio border about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh, has a population size of about 700, not exactly a hockey hotbed.
“I started playing when I was about four,” Johns said. “I started off playing house-league locally and then went to Cranberry to play. It seemed like every year I was jumping to the next level.”
Johns starred for the Pittsburgh Hornets at both ends of the ice in 2007-08, playing 76 games for the Midget Major team, recording 45 points (16G-29A) and posting 70 penalty minutes.
“I ended up going to Neville Island in Sewickley to play for the Pittsburgh Hornets. That’s how I started to get recruited by the National Team.”
Johns headed to Ann Arbour, Mich., to try out for the Under-17 National Team. Not only did he make the cut, he performed well enough to be one of the top prospects heading into this season, when he graduated to the Under-18 team.
“He just has enormous upside,” said Kyle Woodlief, editor of Red Line. “He is huge and he can skate very well. He makes a good first pass out of the zone.
“He has great feet for a big man. At the level he is playing he can usually overpower people. He has enough foot speed to stick with the smaller, quicker forwards. He is pretty advanced in his own end.”
Woodlief described the defenseman as a defensive-mined presence who has the physical tools to add more at the offensive end of the rink as his game matures.
“He makes a great first pass and he can handle the puck,” Woodlief said. “He doesn’t quite show the hockey sense at the offensive zone that we are looking for, yet. But that is not to say that won’t come at some point.
“He does handle the puck well but he needs to step up in terms of his decision-making and his hockey sense offensively to fulfill that upside he has.”
As he works to improve his puck skills, Johns will continue making life miserable for opponents around the Team USA net.
“I think I play a good defensive game and create big hits,” Johns said. “I am a physical presence on the ice.”
While Team USA has struggled as a team during the regular season – they compete in the United States Hockey League when not traveling to international tournaments – Johns has played well individually, registering six points (1G-5A) through 20 games while pairing up with several partners playing right defense.
“It is good to compete against (future) college kids at the USHL level,” Woodlief said. “NHL scouts can get a good read on him at that level.”
Scouts will get a further read on Johns in the upcoming months as two major international tournaments, both in Belarus, remain on the docket. The Five Nations tournament begins in February and the World Championships, a huge season-ending tournament for players 18 and under, is in April. Sidney Crosby
and Marc-Andre Fleury
are but two players who helped build their pre-draft resumes with strong performances at the World Championships.
“Those two tournaments are going to go a long way towards determining where he is actually selected next June,” Woodlief said. “In particular the U-18 championships are going to be huge for him to see how he plays against all the peers in his age group on the big stage.”
Johns will also be on the big stage next fall when he enters the collegiate ranks at one of the top programs in the country, the University of Notre Dame. He sounds more than pleased with the decision he made.
“The coaches are the best in the country in my opinion,” Johns said. “You can’t get better academics anywhere. When I was on campus I had that gut feeling. I decided that was it and (Notre Dame) is where I want to be.”
Woodlief sees Johns needing to spend a minimum of two seasons with the Fighting Irish, and expects him to learn many nuances of the game playing for some of the top coaches in the country.
“Playing for (Jeff) Jackson at Notre Dame, he is going to be a good coach for him,” Woodlief said. “He stresses discipline and he is a great teacher.”
Before he enrolls in South Bend, Johns has that NHL Draft to worry about. To his credit, Johns says where he is projected to fall is not an issue to him as he works to further refine his game over the coming months.
“I try to stay away from it because it really doesn’t matter until June,” Johns said. “I don’t put much stock into it.”
In Woodlief’s opinion, Johns has nothing to worry about, anyway.
“If he keeps progressing on a normal path I don’t think he will be out of the first round,” Woodlief said. “If he plays the way we expect him to play, he should be in that top-20 group or right around there.”
And when that happens Stephen Johns can begin his journey to join the likes of Malone and Umberger as western Pennsylvanians to make their mark in the NHL.