LOS ANGELES -- Stephen Johns is expected to return to the ice this weekend, and that in itself is a great achievement.
Johns started to develop post-traumatic headaches during training camp in 2018, and has not played a game since. He has taken different stretches of practice time in the past year and a half, and his most recent workouts have been the best that he has experienced. As such, he is expected to go to the AHL and play a three-game conditioning stint starting Friday with the Texas Stars.
"He's gone through the process here over the last month, he's been practicing with the big team here in Dallas, and now it's time to start playing games," Nill said. "He's very excited and looking forward to his next step."
Johns has not spoken to the media this year as part of the team's policy when a player is in injury situations, so there have been no real details on what sort of problems he's experiencing. Even Nill had difficulty pinning down exactly what they needed to see from Johns before he returns to play.
"I really couldn't tell you the answer," Nill said when asked about specifics. "It's a medical thing. He's had to go through this process, and he's gone through it and done a good job. There's been some highs and some lows, and he's battled through it."
Johns currently is on injured reserve, so that will play a role in his conditioning stint. He can play in three games or stay for six days. The league and the Stars will then re-evaluate, and Dallas could ask for more games at that time. The Stars also could activate Johns, but they have only 23 roster spots and one of those is currently being taken by Corey Perry, who is serving a five-game suspension. So, Johns' roster status will be a bit liquid.
Video: GM Jim Nill on potential return of Stephen Johns
Nill emphasized that everything still is up in the air as they try to find out how Johns reacts to game action again.
"I want to make clear that we are going game-by-game down there, too," Nill said. "We'll get through the first game and we'll reassess from there."
That said, there is a reason Johns, 27, is going to play a game. He has been working hard in practice and looks like he did back in the 2017-18 season.
"This has been the most encouraging we've had, most encouraging," Nill said. "You guys have watched practice, he's been out there practicing. We've got a coaching staff that has really never seen him play before. They've been like, 'Wow, this guy is looking pretty good.' Talking to Stephen, he's in a good place in his life right now. So he's exciting to get going."
Stars coach Rick Bowness joined the coaching staff last season and has never seen him play a game. He said when he looked at film of Johns playing before in the NHL, he was impressed.
"It was tantalizing to watch him," Bowness said. "I can't wait to work with that guy. It's unfortunate that I haven't seen him play yet in a year and a half. He's got a lot of great assets out there and he's looked good in practice, I look forward to working with him."
[RELATED: Stars loan Stephen Johns to Texas (AHL) on conditioning assignment]
Asked about the difference between seeing Johns in practice and seeing him in a game, Bowness said it would be night and day.
"You've got to make reads under pressure," Bowness said of games. "In practice, there's no consequence if you make a bad read. In the game, there are consequences for bad reads. So it's a big, big difference, and he needs to play."
That said, if Johns can return, he gives the Stars a very valuable player. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he is a massive, physical force. He's also a solid skater and right-handed shot, meaning he could fit into the top four on defense and give Dallas a great deal of depth on the blueline.
Johns signed a three-year deal that averages $2.35 million after averaging 17:33 in time on ice and leading the team in both hits and blocked shots.
"You're talking about a young man who is 6-foot-4, he can skate, he can shoot a puck, he's a physical presence," Nill said. "He's what every team is looking for. He's a good person. He brings a lot to the table. When we signed him, he was coming off a very good year for us and we thought he was going to be a big part of our top four.
"Now, we have an opportunity to bring him back."
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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.