ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Stephen Johns has been battling post-traumatic headaches for more than 660 days and has not played in the NHL in a year and a half, but he is ready to return tonight.
Johns is scheduled to be in the lineup for the Stars against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, completing a rehab stint that has been emotional and trying. Johns was in training camp with the Stars in Idaho in 2018 when he started to get headaches. He was held out of play all of last season and while he has tried on several occasions to get himself to a place where he could return, he only recently made a breakthrough.
Johns played two conditioning games in the AHL with the Texas Stars, and now both he and the Stars are ready to see how he reacts to NHL competition.
"For 22 months, this is the day I've looked forward to every second of every day," Johns said, addressing the media for the first time.
Johns said he doesn't really want to talk about the details of his rehab and said he wants to concentrate on playing first. But he added that he's "very excited not only for myself but the team I have behind me, the rest of my family, and obviously, my girlfriend has been with me every step of the way."
Video: DAL@MIN: Johns reflects on his return to the team
Johns said he definitely will have to deal with emotions Saturday. He had to ponder whether his career might be over, and he certainly had to deal with the frustration of why his head wouldn't respond the way he wanted to.
Asked what he missed most about not playing, Johns said "It's hard not to get emotional asking that question. I think you miss every single thing. I think the hardest part was sitting up in the stands and just watching tough losses and not being able to be in the locker room with the guys after -- and after big wins. Every single aspect that you could imagine about the game of hockey.
"For people who play and that have been in locker rooms, they understand the culture of it, and I was kind of by myself there for 22 months and that was probably the hardest days of my life, for sure. But it puts a lot of things in perspective and life is really good, and it's been really good here the past couple weeks. So, hopefully, it keeps turning that way."
Johns, 27, has played 150 regular season games and 13 playoff games with the Stars. He had moved himself into the top four on defense during the 2017-18 season and earned a three-year contract that averages $2.35 million. The next fall, he had to deal with the headaches. But if he can return to the player he was, the Stars could get a huge addition.
"You could see what he could bring. The size, the skills, the shot, the heavy play. So, I'm excited to see him play," Stars interim coach Rick Bowness said. "I think he's probably got the heaviest shot we have back there, so that will be a big asset for us. When you can skate like he can and you're as physical and strong … listen, he brings a lot of tools to the game and we need to let him play and we need let him get the rust out to see what he can do."
Johns was so good in his two games in the AHL that the Stars shortened his conditioning stint. They could have allowed him to play three AHL games and then brought him back after the eight-day mid-season break, but said they felt he was ready to play now.
"It's good that he went down and played that couple of games to get a little rust out of him," Bowness said.
Johns had a goal and three assists in the first game back.
"The games in Austin -- the first night was pretty special, something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Johns said. "I think just getting through that game and knowing that I can play this game again and be physical at the same time, and not just play on my heels every shift. It felt really good to hit people, and it felt even better to get hit and felt good to be sore and block shots.
Video: DAL@MIN: Bowness on what Johns brings to Stars
"All the aches and pains that came with the game, it felt good to have that again."
Johns is slated to start out on the third pairing with Andrej Sekera. Bowness said the team will make a decision on how much Johns plays and whether or not he plays special teams as the game goes on. The Stars are going with six defensemen, so they expect Johns to get regular minutes.
"We certainly don't want to throw too much at him too early, so we'll see how he's doing," Bowness said. "Is he going to be on top of his game tonight? No. But that's OK, we're going to get him through it."
For Johns, just playing will be a huge accomplishment.
"Right now, I'm just excited to play tonight," Johns said. "That time will come when I'm ready to sit down and tell my story and hopefully help others out, but right now, I just want to focus on tonight."
Stars shuffle lines to find more 5-on-5 scoring
Coming off a stale game in a 4-1 loss to Buffalo at home Thursday, Bowness had all of his lines shuffled up at the morning skate.
He had Joel Kiviranta on the right wing with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Mattias Janmark (who is back from illness) was on a line with Roope Hintz and Alexander Radulov. The checking line was broken up as Andrew Cogliano was playing beside Jason Dickinson and Corey Perry. And the last line could actually play the second-most minutes, as Joe Pavelski was centering Denis Gurianov and Blake Comeau.
The Stars are second-worst in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals with 75, and Bowness said he wants to try something to shake up his team.
"We're not scoring a lot of goals 5-on-5, so why not try something different?" Bowness said. "We need to score more than one even strength goal a game, we don't have last change here, so let's try a different look, there's no harm in that whatsoever."
Heiskanen in concussion protocol, Faksa remains out
Miro Heiskanen, who left the Buffalo game with an upper-body injury, is in concussion protocol and did not travel. Bowness said he believes Heiskanen should be ready to return when the Stars play their next game against Tampa Bay at home on Jan. 27.
Radek Faksa, who will miss his third game with an upper-body injury, also is expected to be ready to return for the next game.
Johns will take Heiskanen's place in the lineup, while Janmark will jump in after missing one game with illness, and Justin Dowling will come out.
Anton Khudobin will be in net. He is 11-6-1 with a 2.13 goals against average and .932 save percentage. In his career against Minnesota, Khudobin is 2-2-0 with a 2.52 GAA and .894 save percentage.
By the numbers
Dallas is 10-4-2 against the Central Division this season, including 1-0-1 against the Wild. Minnesota is 4-8-1 in games against Central Division opponents.
In 31 career games against the Wild, Tyler Seguin has 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists). He is plus-13 in that span.
The Stars have allowed 35 goals in second periods this season, fewest in the NHL. Minnesota has scored 55 goals in second periods this year, eighth-most in the NHL.
He said it
"We all know what he does for us. Our breakouts are a lot better when he joins the rush. He's a danger on that offensive blueline. You take him out of there and that's a big hole. There's no getting around that. Injuries happen and you've got to keep playing and overcome them."
-- Bowness on missing Heiskanen, who left last game to go into concussion protocol and will not play Saturday against the Wild. This will be the first time since Heiskanen joined the Stars last season that he will miss an entire game.
Stars projected lineup
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Joel Kiviranta
Mattias Janmark - Roope Hintz - Alexander Radulov
Andrew Cogliano - Jason Dickinson - Corey Perry
Denis Gurianov - Joe Pavelski - Blake Comeau
Esa Lindell - Roman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak - John Klingberg
Andrej Sekera - Stephen Johns
Scratched: C Justin Dowling, D Taylor Fedun
Injured: D Miro Heiskanen (upper body), C Radek Faksa (upper body), C Martin Hanzal (back)
Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Tampa Bay Lightning when they return home to American Airlines Center on Monday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. Get your tickets now!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.