Stephen Johns was hanging out with friends in Pennsylvania last Friday night when his phone signaled an incoming call from Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.
“I thought I better take it,” Johns said.
He did, and received the news that he was headed to the Dallas Stars along with Patrick Sharp in exchange for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt.
“Obviously, being part of an organization for five years, it was a little bit of a shock and a little bit of a whirlwind of emotions,” Johns said. “Now that I have let it sink in, I couldn’t be more excited to come to an organization like the Dallas Stars.”
The Stars are excited about the potential of Johns, a 23-year-old defenseman who is listed at 6-4, 233 pounds, shoots right and plays a physical game.
“He can skate. He plays the game hard. We’ve got a lot of skill in our lineup and we don’t have a lot of that presence,” Stars GM Jim Nill said. “You need to have some of that size and different dimension in the back end and I think he brings that. The other thing that I love about the young man is he’s a leader on and off the ice.”
Nill has been tracking Johns since the young defenseman was playing with the USA Under-18 team in Michigan and continued to follow him as he moved on to the University of Notre Dame. The Dallas GM saw him again last spring as Johns and Rockford took on the Texas Stars in the first round of the AHL playoffs.
“I thought he manhandled us,” Nill said. “I thought he was the best player on the ice.”
Johns sent the Texas Stars packing by tallying the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 3 as the IceHogs swept the best-of-five series. Johns picked off a pass in the neutral zone, slipped by Texas defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and then beat goaltender Jussi Rynnas on a wrap-around.
“I’m a guy that’s not known to score too many goals, but I feel I am a guy that they can count on in clutch situations,” Johns said. “To be able to score a goal like that to clinch the series was one of the coolest hockey moments I’ve ever had personally. One of the happier moments in my hockey career for sure.”
The 2014-15 season was the first full one in the pros for Johns, a second-round pick (60th overall) by Chicago in the 2010 NHL Draft. The Pennsylvania native played 51 games for Rockford, registering 21 points (4 goals, 17 assists) and a team-high plus-30 rating. There were some bumps along the way due to injuries, including a concussion. It was foreign territory for Johns.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever had injuries where I missed games. It was tough. Dealing with a concussion, it’s not like you can rehab, it’s more of a waiting game. It was mentally tough,” he said. “It was kind of a fluky year, a weird year but when healthy and playing, I felt I made a big step in my career and gained a lot of confidence.”
Some of that confidence came on the offensive side of things for Johns, who leans toward the defensive side of the game. In the playoffs, he tallied 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) in eight games as Rockford advanced to the second round.
“I am a defensive defenseman first. I think this season I gained some confidence to be more offensive at times,” Johns said. “At the higher levels, I think my first focus is as a defensive defenseman, a shutdown guy, a reliable guy that a team can depend on in any situation.”
Johns might have had a chance to be part of Chicago’s run to the Stanley Cup last season when the Blackhawks blue line got a little thin after Michael Rozsival went out with an ankle injury in the second round. Johns appeared to be an option for a call-up, but suffered a broken forearm in Rockford’s final playoff game and was unavailable to the Blackhawks.
“You never know. You can’t dwell on it,” Johns said. “It was an opportunity that I missed, but I feel that another opportunity is coming soon. I just have to make the most of that opportunity when it comes.”
Johns is one of several Dallas defense prospects who are on the cusp of playing in the NHL. Nill said he expects Johns to come in and push for an NHL roster spot when training camp opens in Cedar Park in September.
“I told him to come into camp and I want to see you compete for a job up top. It’s wide open,” Nill said. “We want the best. It’s about winning now.”
Johns will head to Dallas next week to check things out and meet with the coaches and staff. He’ll be back a couple weeks prior to training camp to start skating with his new teammates.
“I am excited to see where I fit in,” Johns said. “[Jim Nill] expects me – and I also expect – to come to training camp in good shape and compete as hard as I can and try to win a job.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.