Lightning's Tyler Johnson an unexpected rookie star
FEB 11, 2014 1:46p ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tyler Johnson considers the NHL Rookie of the Year talk overblown. A big deal created by the media. Little more.
Thanks to his standout play, the whispers have grown louder in recent weeks. But the fact he's part of the Tampa Bay Lightning at all is a testament to his resilience in a sport where it's easy to become fatigued.
Johnson, 23, considered a different path once. This was four years ago, before he entered his fourth season with the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs. Undrafted and about to lose his junior eligibility, he spoke with Canadian college programs in a feeling-out process that could have kept his hockey interest alive while pursuing options outside the rink.
The detour never happened. The destination became what he sought all along.
"I'm just trying to play the game," Johnson, a center, told FOX Sports Florida recently. "There's no way I would be doing well or getting points without the team. I'm just trying to help out as much as possible. Whatever happens at the end of the season happens. But right now, you can't worry about stuff like that."
His worry, for the most part, is behind him now. Part of what makes the NHL interesting is the unlikely star stories born, tales of young men overcoming rocky paths to reach the top -- narratives like being undersized and rising through junior leagues throughout the world no matter the background or socioeconomic status involved. Stamina is necessary for survival.
No single experience is the same. Johnson's dream began with the most American of roots: A childhood fascination that blossomed into an adult lifestyle.
He credits his parents, Ken and Debbie, as giving him every opportunity growing up in Spokane, Wash. Debbie managed an ice rink, where her son spent about eight hours a day nurturing a vision.
By age 10, most of the family's vacation time was spent on hockey, including multiple trips to Vancouver so that young Tyler could face top competition. By age 16, as Ken wrote in a March 2013 column for The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, "we'd been everywhere, or so it seemed."
"There's no way I could have been here where I am without that," Johnson said.
There were hints that Johnson could rise past those humble Spokane beginnings to the sport's most elite level. Bill Peters, Johnson's coach in Spokane, once told his young player there was a chance he could play in the NHL. The encouragement became inspiration, a spark that lit a dreamer's mind.
"That's when I really put my mind to it even a little bit more and started to progress more," Johnson said.
There were hard times in that progress, though. He went undrafted by the NHL despite three decent seasons in the WHL and two appearances in the World Junior Championships. At age 20, he went to camp with the Minnesota Wild, where the two sides talked about signing early in the process before those discussions stalled. He returned to juniors.
All those obstacles could have ended Johnson's quest. But instead, they became mile markers along the way to more memorable destinations: Seventy-five games with the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals in the 2011-12 season, 62 with the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and 14 with the Lightning last campaign, then all 58 so far with Tampa Bay this winter.
Johnson has made the most of his time under coach Jon Cooper, becoming one of the Lightning's young stars who have risen in Steven Stamkos' absence. There's familiarity between the two because of their time together in Norfolk and Syracuse, each man growing in his role -- Johnson as a steady presence on the ice and Cooper as a maturing leader behind the bench.
"For the amount of rookies that we've had play -- and primarily all of them played for me in the minors for the most part -- I think there is one level of comfortness, I suppose," Cooper said.
The comfort is obvious when watching Johnson play. The factor can't be overlooked when considering all he has done in helping Tampa Bay reach 71 points before the Olympic break.
He's second in the NHL among rookies in points with 37, behind Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick last year. He's second in goals among rookies with 17, behind MacKinnon. He's third in assists among rookies with 20, behind MacKinnon and Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele.
Has Johnson been a surprise? Not to those who have witnessed the drive, the desire, up close.
"A little bit," Lightning winger Ryan Malone said. "But even last year when he got called up, you obviously notice his speed and his smarts."
"He was a really good player in the minors and juniors and everywhere he has been," Lightning center Nate Thompson said. "I don't think it's a surprise at all."
That's how Johnson would want it. The Rookie of the Year talk will become louder, especially if he continues his strong play after the Olympic break, but that's not his goal. He's about growing within the game.
"The moment you start worrying about points is the moment that you start changing your game and start playing selfishly and just don't play well," Johnson said. "So I'm just trying to focus on helping the team out and push for the playoffs here and see what can happen."
The chatter about his potential has only begun, and those whispers will gain volume with more surprises he delivers. The destination is everything he thought it would be. By now, the resilience has become his reward.