When the Dallas Stars recalled Stephen Johns on an emergency basis from the AHL last month, the young defenseman got some advice from Texas Stars assistant coach Karl Taylor.
“He told me when you go up there, try to stay as long as you can and make them want to have you there. Try to extend your life up there,” Johns said. “I tried to do that.”
Mission accomplished. Johns made his NHL debut on March 12, and less than a week later Johns had himself a two-year, one-way contract extension. A couple of days later the Stars took the emergency label off his recall, meaning Johns was staying in the NHL. He made his NHL playoff debut in Game 1 of the Stars first-round series against Minnesota.
“It was pretty awesome,” Johns said. “I was probably more nervous for that game than I was for my first game up here.”
Johns has been in the lineup every game since the recall, settling in on the Stars’ second defense pair with veteran Johnny Oduya.
“He got an opportunity up here, and he played the way we thought he would,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “We’re excited.”
And there’s plenty to be excited about when it comes to the 24-year-old Johns, who is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds. He and center Radek Faksa, another call-up from the AHL, have brought some much-needed elements to the Dallas lineup.
“They’ve brought a physicality; they’ve brought a hardness to our lineup that I think was needed,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “We were getting away with high-end speed and skill, and I think they’ve brought a hardness to the adjustments that the league made against the way we play. And we’ve been able to physically come in and win more battles and create more situations that have helped us win games.”
Johns led the Stars with 21 hits in their first-round series against Minnesota. He was a plus-19 in shot attempts for/against and a plus-6 in scoring chances for/against at even strength in the six games against the Wild, according to war-on-ice.com.
That’s the kind of play the Stars envisioned when they acquired Johns from Chicago along with Patrick Sharp in exchange for defensemen Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt this past offseason.
“He was a big part of that trade,” Nill said. “We weren’t doing the trade unless he was part of it.”
Chicago drafted Johns, who is from the small town of Wampum, Pennsylvania, in the second round (60th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft from the U.S. National Development Team. Johns spent the next four seasons at the University of Notre Dame and then turned pro full-time last season, playing 51 games with Rockford of the American Hockey League.
He was a big reason Rockford knocked the Texas Stars out of the first round of the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs. He scored the series-clinching goal in Game 3 of the best-of-five series, picking off a pass in the neutral zone, slipping by Texas defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and then scoring on a wrap-around. His performance in that series helped raise his stock with Dallas. And a few months later came the trade.
“I was shocked,” Johns said. “It was in the middle of the summer. It was a couple of days before prospect camp. I didn’t expect anything like that, but it is what it is. It’s a business, and I had to learn that at a younger age than most guys. I am happy to be here now.”
Getting to Dallas and the NHL took some time. It was a numbers game in training camp. The Stars had eight NHL defensemen on the roster and Johns could do the math. That meant a trip down Interstate-35 to Cedar Park to join the team he helped oust from the playoffs the previous season. But before heading to the AHL, there were encouraging words from Dallas assistant coach James Patrick, who handles the team’s defensemen.
“Jeep told me, “You are going to be here. Don’t know when but you’ll be here.’ That’s reassuring as a player,” Johns said. “It’s a process. You’re not going to play in the NHL as soon as you turn pro unless you are a superstar. I just stuck with it down in Austin, tried to get better as a player and enjoy it down there. It was a good experience.”
Johns was one of Texas’ top defensemen, registering 24 points (four goals, 20 assists) and a plus-seven rating in 55 games before the call-up to Dallas in early March. Four games into his NHL career, he scored his first goal and the next day the Stars announced that contract extension for Johns, who was scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
Johns has been impressive from the moment he stepped into the Dallas lineup. There’s been the physical play and at times, it’s been highlight-reel quality. He put Nashville forward James Neal into the Dallas bench with a hit during the regular season. He delivered a crushing hit on Erik Haula in the first-round series against Minnesota.
There have been glimpses of offensive skill as well. In Game 5 against Minnesota, he sliced his way through the Wild defense and got off a quality backhand shot from the slot. That came just moments after he made a nice rush deep into the Minnesota zone and created some havoc in the crease with a centering pass.
“I like a lot of things [about him],” Oduya said. “He is big, strong, fast and very mobile. He has a good first pass. He is very good with his stick positioning. He does everything an NHL defenseman should be able to do nowadays. He’s got a big shot, too. It’s just a matter of playing, collect the experience and try to get better like everybody else. He’ll be a good player for a long time.”
Johns, who has been paired with Oduya since his recall, has been soaking up what he can from his veteran partner.
“When a guy with a couple of Stanley Cup rings says something to you, you listen,” Johns said. “Obviously, he’s been one of the steadiest defensemen in the past ten years. It’s a great honor to play with him. When he has something to say I listen and take it to heart.”
Johns might have joined Oduya for Chicago’s run to the Stanley Cup last season when the Blackhawks blue line got a little thin after defenseman Michal Rozsival was lost to an ankle injury in the second round. Johns appeared to be an option for a call-up, but he suffered an arm injury in Rockford’s final playoff game and was unavailable to be called up to Chicago. But Johns emphatically discounts any talk of that, saying he doesn’t dwell on what’s behind him, only what lies ahead.
“I don’t really care about what happened in the past,” he said. “I just care about what happens right now, and that’s trying to win a Stanley Cup here.”
And Johns, just six weeks into his NHL career, has become an important piece of the Stars’ pursuit of that Stanley Cup.
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.