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Tyler Johnson at the crossroads

With two straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and very little roster turnover in the last two seasons it seems that General Manager Steve Yzerman is happy with the team he has put together. He has started to identify the core of the Tampa Bay Lightning roster. This summer saw captain Steven Stamkos, number one defenseman Victor Hedman and Harvard Man Alex Killorn all sign lengthy extensions. This upcoming season will play a big part in determining who will join them in seeing out the rest of this decade (and most of next) clad in Bolts jerseys. One player who needs to have a bounce back season in order to join them is Tyler Johnson.

There is no doubt that Tyler Johnson is good at hockey. Unfortunately last season he was a little less good (at least until the playoffs came around). The 2015-16 season is probably one he won’t be reflecting on too much as his career progresses. Injuries limited him to 69 games and a career-low 38 points. He didn’t score his first goal until November 1st and only played five games in December, failing to record a point in any of them.

It looked obvious that Johnson hadn’t completely recovered from the broken wrist that he played through in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals which contributed to his slow start. Then, just as he seemed to be getting back on track, an undisclosed injury sidelined him for a stretch of 13 out of 17 games in December. Despite returning to full time action in January, it wasn’t until late March that he felt like himself. As he told the Tampa Tribune on the 28th, “I feel like I got my speed back, got everything I can do”.

It showed on the ice as well; Johnson scored more than half his season points in February and March. With Steven Stamkos recovering from a blood clot, Johnson went into the playoffs as the Lightning’s top center and focus of playoff opponents top defensive units. That didn’t stop him from racking up 17 points in 17 games, including three game-winning goals (including one off of his butt!)

Adversity isn’t new for Johnson. After all, he’s been “too small” for hockey his entire career. Yet despite his size he has found success at every level of his career. Everywhere he’s gone, Johnson’s been among the better players on championship winning teams. With four seasons under his belt in the NHL and a solid relationship with head coach Jon Cooper, Johnson should feel secure in his role with the Lightning. Yet…

Steven Stamkos is the default #1 center (most of the time) in Tampa Bay. Johnson fills the second line center role. However, there are players chomping at the bit to take that role. The Bolts have flirted with Jonathan Drouin at center and he needs top six minutes to be effective. Recently re-signed Russian Vladislav Namestnikov is looking for more playing time and has the offensive skills to contend for time on the power play.

The financial side also has serious bearing on Johnson’s future with the team. While no one likes having contracts interfere with putting the best product on the ice, it is a fact that Johnson is playing in the final year of a three-year contract that paid him $3.33 million per year. As a restricted free agent, the Lightning still retain his rights but will their salary cap situation isn’t getting any better any time soon. With Ondrej Palat, Drouin, Andrej Sustr, and Slater Koekkoek all looking for new deals next summer, someone is going to have to go.

Johnson will have to return to form (60-70 points) to justify his current salary or any type of raise. If he shows that he is healthy and able to perform at the level the Lightning need, then he should be brought back. A solid two-way center is vital for any successful team. Even in a down year, Johnson did drive possession as his 52.2 Corsi percentage was almost dead-on with his career numbers. In fact, most of his numbers were in line with his career numbers with the exception of his shooting percentage. A career-low 8.4% drove down some of his other advanced stats like his PDO. Corsi, Fenwick, Face-Off and Zone Starts are all inline with his career numbers. Could his injuries have led to him not being as effective a shooter as he had been during the earlier, part of his career? Yes, especially the wrist.

The Lightning have seen in the past with Vincent Lecavalier that wrist injuries can affect the way a player plays his game. If it felt different for Johnson to shoot the puck logic dictates that the quality of shots would be diminished.

Johnson had no serious lingering injuries that he had to recover from this off-season. A full rest (and some fun in the Czech Republic) should have him at the top of the game for the 2016-17 season. Being left off of the US squad for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey might even give him some extra rest and motivation.

Ondrej Palat might be a better defensive forward and Nikita Kucherov is a better goal-scorer, but Johnson might be the most important of the Triplets. He combines the best elements of those two and is a better passer. The Lightning need him to return to form in order to continue their success. They were able to scuff by the first part of last season mainly because of Ben Bishop and Kucherov. Relying on that formula two years in a row isn’t a great model for success.

If Johnson can stay healthy and bring his scoring level back up to wear it was in the first couple of seasons then the Lightning are that much more dangerous. And while he will probably always have a pass-first mentality, if he is scoring goals then it keeps the ice open for Kucherov.

Two seasons ago a loud angry mob would descend upon anyone who even hinted of a Lightning squad without Tyler Johnson on it. Heck, if Steven Stamkos had chosen to leave the team Johnson probably would have been in consideration to wear the captain’s “C”. However, should he stumble this season perhaps that mob won’t be quite as vociferous.

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