Top 25 Under 25: #6 Tyler Johnson

Rich Lam

The AHL MVP has another piece of hardware in his sights -- the Calder Trophy, handed out to the NHL's most outstanding rookie. With 26 points in 46 games, Tyler Johnson is certainly in the rookie of the year conversation, and he makes our countdown at #6.

He's good at the hockey.

Credit to Bolt Prospects for that meme, which has caught on like wildfire to describe the hockey acumen of one Tyler Johnson, rookie center for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Here's how the panel ranked the 23 year old center:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
5 6 5 4 5 13

Johnson -- an undrafted forward -- was signed in March of 2011 by GM Steve Yzerman to a standard three-year entry level contract following an outstanding overage season in the Western Hockey League with the Spokane Chiefs. Johnson scored 115 points in 71 games during his final season in the WHL, but in spite of that (and a good showing at the 2010 World Junior Championships) he was passed over each year he was eligible for the NHL Entry Draft, mainly due to concerns over his size. Johnson is listed by the Lightning at 5'9, 182 lbs, an generous measurement the team probably made while the undersized forward was wearing all of his equipment (including skates).

The most obvious comparison for Johnson is to Lightning captain Martin St. Louis; they are similar in their size and build, but also their skill on the puck and speed on the rush. Johnson represents the type of calculated risk a smart GM like Yzerman can take on a player with 2 of the 3 following qualities: size, skill, and hockey sense. If you asked Steve Yzerman to rank those three traits in order of importance for hockey players he wants on the Lightning, I'd wager size would come in last with the understanding it's better to have a small player who can skate and score then a big one who can't keep up with the NHL game in terms of speed and skill.

While Johnson isn't going to flatten anybody along the boards or in the corners, he uses his lower center of gravity well on board battles and, like St. Louis, is able to find soft spots in the slot with relative ease. His on-ice vision and good hockey instincts are, most of the time, more than enough to make up for any perceived lack of "grit" or "toughness" that is often applied to undersized players in the NHL.

His "first-glance" stats are quite good -- the 26 points in 46 games puts him at third among rookies behind Nathan MacKinnon and Chris Kreider -- and he's the time on ice leader amongst all rookie forwards with 18:24 played per game. Those surface numbers have him at least on the bubble of the Calder Trophy conversation at the season's halfway point.

Beyond that, the underlying numbers show he's been a big contributor to the Bolts improved overall puck possession game as well, even as he's been forced up the depth chart into more minutes against tougher opponents. He currently holds a 51.9% Corsi For, meaning the Lightning take 51.9% of all shot attempts when he is on the ice, good for 7th on the Lightning. His Corsi Relative is even better (+7.7%), meaning the Lightning as a team control 7.7% more of all shot attempts when he is on the ice as opposed to when he is not. In short, he's driving play the right direction -- towards the opposition net -- and while he was sheltered early on skating as the 3rd line center behind Steven Stamkos and Valterri Filppula, that's changed considerably since the beginning of the season.

One area of his game that, surprisingly, needs work has been at the faceoff dot. He's winning just 47.4% of his draws in 2013-2014, compared to last season when he won 59.5%, and he's still getting tossed out of draws quite often too, forcing linemates Martin St. Louis (114 faceoffs taken, 43.0% winning percentage) and Ondrej Palat (31 faceoffs taken, 16.1% winning percentage) to take more draws than your average winger.

Fortunately, the Lightning are playing good enough between the faceoffs to make up it, and Johnson has undoubtedly stepped up into a larger role for the club since Steven Stamkos went down with a broken tibia on November 11. Since Jon Cooper formed the line of Johnson between Martin St. Louis and Ondrej Palat, that trio has formed the de facto "top line" for the Bolts, one that regularly sees top opposition checking lines and defense pairings. They've found a way to use the speed that they all possess to create a lot of offense off the rush, making them a nightmare to defend in transition.

It's unclear right now where Tyler Johnson will slot into the lineup once Steven Stamkos does return -- but he's earned the minutes he's getting right now and giving the Lightning the type of secondary scoring you need to have success in this league. Johnson's performance so far this year is just another example of how the Lightning are building from within the type of depth you need in the NHL to stay afloat when something happens to one of your top-line guys.

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