ST PAUL, Minn. – With a flight to catch and another loss to digest, Tyler Johnson and the Tampa Bay Lightning hustled through their postgame routine in the visitors’ locker room Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center.
Johnson assisted on both Lightning goals in the team’s 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild, but an early goal by Jared Spurgeon – Johnson’s teammate for three years with the Spokane Chiefs – sparked the Wild past the Lightning to hand them a rare regulation defeat. It was just the 12th of the year but third in a row for the best team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Still, the loss aside, this has been a good run for Spokane native Johnson, an NHL All-Star who might be entering the prime of his NHL career at age 27.
“Winning seems to follow him anywhere,” said Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay’s head coach, “and that’s no different here.”
Johnson’s two assists Saturday boosted his season total to 21. With 37 points in 47 games – including a pair of wins on Monday and Tuesday, he is nearly on pace to match his career-best 72 in 2014-15. That was the year he earned an All-Star selection and went on a scoring tear in the playoffs to lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
That cup is about the only one Johnson hasn’t lifted. He followed the 2008 Memorial Cup championship with the Chiefs with a Calder Cup (American Hockey League) title in 2012. Cooper coached him there, too, in Norfolk. In fact, he’s been Johnson’s only head coach since the winger left Spokane in 2011.
“You’re always cheering for the guy who’s not drafted,” Cooper said of Johnson. “I always say this about smaller players: Bigger players have to play themselves off teams, and smaller players have to play themselves on teams, and he’s done it.”
At 5-foot-8, 183 pounds, Johnson – or “Johnny,” as teammates call him – fits the more open style of play that’s grown more effective in the NHL than it was when he went undrafted after his 115-point season with the Chiefs.
It has paid off: Last summer he signed a seven-year, $35 million contract extension, through 2023-24.
“I’ve been very fortunate, being in some great organizations,” Johnson said. “Spokane is one of the best ones in the WHL, and coming to Tampa is one of the best in the NHL, so I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been on the path of being with some good players and some good people and that’s helped me grow as a person and as a player.”
Cooper said Johnson is part of a nucleus that came up five years ago that forms the core of the current Lightning. Teammates said that’s somewhat rare.
“There’s not a lot of guys who can say they’ve played together for, this is our sixth year together,” teammate Ondrej Palat said. “We’ve had a lot of fun in the NHL.”
In the other locker room Saturday, the Wild’s Spurgeon reflected on the Memorial Cup team he and Johnson were part of.
“When Tyler came in he was an underdog, a smaller guy, and from Spokane as well, and I think people underestimated him and how much of an impact he had on our team,” said defenseman Spurgeon, who is 5-9, 168 pounds. “Anyone, if you’re small, they don’t think you can play, and he’s proved people wrong.”
Spurgeon and Johnson said they still keep in touch with the Chiefs when they can, although they admit it is harder now since all their former teammates have moved on. Johnson has spoken with current Chiefs star Kailer Yamamoto and his parents. Johnson still summers in the Spokane area and eagerly invites his teammates, like the Czech-born Palat, to come visit.
But summer is far off, and Johnson has his focus on getting the Lightning back on track and someday hoisting the one cup that has eluded him.
“You always hope and dream of it, but you never actually know,” he said of playing this long. “I didn’t even know if I was going to get a pro contract until my 20-year-old year when I actually signed. You never really know, but there’s always hope.”
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