Top 25 Under 25: #4 Tyler Johnson
After a surprisingly dominant run as a top-line AHLer, Tyler Johnson finished 2013-14 as a finalist for the Calder Trophy in the NHL when the injury to Steven Stamkos forced him into a much bigger role than expected as a rookie.
Tyler Johnson has never done what's expected of him.
He wasn't expected to ever make the NHL; that's why he was overlooked in his draft-eligible seasons in spite of an impressive resume as a premiere scorer in the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs from 2007-08 through 2010-11. Concerns over his size and ability to translate offensive success in a junior league to a more physical, faster version of the game were real. All thirty teams (including the Tampa Bay Lightning) had multiple opportunities to add him to their pool of prospects. All elected not to do so.
He wasn't expected to become a leader on Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL squad after signing as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2011; all he did that year was quietly lead the AHL Norfolk Admirals top line as the team went on a 28-game winning streak for now-Lightning coach Jon Cooper en route to a dominant performance in the AHL playoffs (14 points in 14 games) as the Admirals claimed the Calder Cup.
He wasn't expected to repeat that outstanding rookie performance as teammate Cory Conacher, the AHL's MVP that season, was called up to the Lightning; he responded with 37 goals (to lead the AHL) and 65 points in 62 games in 2012-13, winning an MVP award of his own in a year where a lockout meant many NHL-bound players spent half a season playing in the AHL.
He wasn't expected to step onto the NHL club in 2013-14 and contribute offense right away; there would be an adjustment period, of course. He'd have to learn the pace of the NHL game and fight harder than ever before to score against stronger, bigger, faster defensemen. After a month centering a very effective third line for the Bolts, an injury to Steven Stamkos opened the door for top-line minutes. Tyler Johnson sprinted through it and never looked back, finishing the year third on the Lightning in total 5v5 time on ice while also being used on both special teams units and ultimately finishing 3rd in Calder voting and 19th in Selke voting.
Every time a new set of expectations is set for him, he exceeds them -- and that uncanny ability is part of what lands him at #4 on our countdown. Here's how the panel ranked the 24-year old center:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 6
The best case scenario was supposed to be that Tyler Johnson and his two linemates from the AHL -- Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik -- would bring their pre-existing chemistry from their time together with the Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch and give Tampa Bay Lightning a strong third line that could win battles against other third lines and contribute some secondary scoring, and for a while, that's exactly what they provided Jon Cooper.
The Stamkos injury changed everything for the Lightning season, including Johnson's usage and role on the team. After a transition period where Cooper shuffled up his forwards to try and find a new way without number 91, Johnson eventually found himself on the top line centering Ondrej Palat and Martin St. Louis. The line scorched the NHL in the second half and carried the offensive load for the Bolts with Valtteri Filppula and Nate Thompson handling defensive minutes.
He fired the puck on net at a very good clip (7.46 5v5 shots on goal per 60 minutes, 5th on the Lightning) and converted on nearly 10% of them, scoring 13 of his 24 goals at evens. His speed on the rush was hard to handle, even for some of the better defensive pairs in the East, and he proved to be equally lethal while shorthanded, scoring a staggering 5 goals while down a man in 2013-14. That's especially impressive while playing for a team that almost never managed any offense at all while shorthanded in recent seasons.
Johnson did get his fair share of bounces (.938 SV% at 5v5 for the Lightning while he was on the ice), so it's not unreasonable to project he might "struggle" a bit to start 2014-15 just on natural variance alone -- he might play exactly as well as he did last year and yet see worse offensive output and more goals against through no fault of his own, because hockey is fickle and unpredictable.
He was, generally speaking, a positive possession player who didn't get the benefit of extremely favorable usage like many rookies do when they enter the NHL, though he was also much older than most first-year NHLers. He played a ton of minutes against all sorts of competition and thrived with the heavy usage, even at the end of the season when he was unexpectedly moved to right wing to accommodate the return of Steven Stamkos to the lineup. Concerns of his size were probably overblown; he's not an overly physical forward but he played well in the corners and around the next and seemed to have no trouble at all beating slower, "stay-at-home" defensemen.
Undoubtedly much of the rhetoric on Johnson in 2014-15 will be focused on whether or not he can avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump", but it's important to highlight the importance of process over results when evaluating the success or failure of a player or team. Johnson played a smart, hard, effective game last season, using his speed to his advantage and using his good hockey sense to keep the puck out of troublesome areas or get it moving in the right direction. If he continues to do that this upcoming year -- be that as a center, or a winger, and with whatever linemates he ends up with -- he'll have another successful year, even if the outcomes don't seem as favorable as they were a year ago.