Inside the NHL

Long before Tyler Johnson, proud son of the Spokane suburb of Liberty Lake, made his second Stanley Cup Final with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he first had to make it on to a junior hockey team’s roster. 

That wasn’t a given, despite Johnson eventually starring with his hometown Spokane Chiefs and leading them to Western Hockey League and Memorial Cup titles in 2008. Aspiring players wanting a Washington state role model for perseverance need look no further than what 5-foot-8, 180-pound center Johnson, 30, overcame while climbing to junior hockey, the professional ranks, the NHL and finally to the Cup final this year against the Dallas Stars. 

Bliss Littler has long told players the story of the first Washingtonian to make multiple Stanley Cup Finals; with Johnson seeking to join Aberdeen native Wayne Hicks of the 1961 Chicago Blackhawks and Stanwood’s T.J. Oshie of the 2018 Washington Capitals in winning it all. Back in May 2007, while coaching the Nebraska-based Tri-City Storm of the Tier-1 junior United States Hockey League (USHL), Littler actually cut Johnson after a spring tryout camp.

Johnson already had suffered the ignominy of the WHL’s Chiefs waiting until the 11th round to select him 201st overall in the 2005 WHL Bantam draft. And now, a team from the USHL — the top U.S. junior circuit but a notch below the Canadian-based major junior ranks encompassing the WHL — also was suggesting he wasn’t good enough.

“You know what I tell people about that camp?’’ said Littler, the general manager of the junior level Wenatchee Wild. “There were 50 Division I college coaches there. There were probably 20 NHL scouts at that camp. And nobody else went down and talked to the kid at that time. It just shows, sometimes especially for smaller kids, they have to do a little bit more.”

It’s a familiar refrain in increasingly specialized youth sports. Teenage athletes are funneled through elite systems and often labeled a “hit” or “miss” before they’ve fully developed, sometimes by coaches making snap judgments.

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“It’s easy for coaches to make mistakes,” Littler said. “And you definitely shouldn’t quit if one coach tells you, ‘You’re not what I’m looking for right now.’ ’’

Indeed, Johnson caught a break soon after, when future NHL head coach Bill Peters, then coaching the Spokane team that allowed Johnson to tumble in the WHL draft, spotted him dominating a local summer hockey league that included Chiefs players. Peters told Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz their once-forgotten pick was a keeper. Johnson not only made the Chiefs that fall ahead of their best-ever, Memorial Cup season, but capped his rookie campaign by being named the WHL’s playoff MVP at age 17.

In fairness to Littler, Johnson still was only 16 and coming off mononucleosis when he cut him. Littler is the first to admit he should have looked more at Johnson’s prior play than in-camp performance.

“It was the second year in a row he’d come out to our camp. He’d played well, but he just wasn’t quite there,’’ Littler said. “We had another camp in Las Vegas — not for my team, but an exposure camp — and he came out. I told his dad, ‘We’ll take him.’ And he said, ‘You know what, the Spokane Chiefs want him, and Tim Speltz believes in him more than you guys. And so we’re going to sign with them.’ ’’

And the rest is history. Or, at least, a prelude to Johnson’s future.  

Johnson scored 128 goals and added 154 assists in four WHL seasons — notching 53 goals and 62 assists his final campaign.

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But due to size concerns, not a single NHL team drafted him. Johnson by his final age-20 junior season was thinking of playing for a Canadian university and seeking a degree as an anesthetist.

It wasn’t until that final year he got serious interest from the Minnesota Wild — with whom he’d attended development camps in 2009 and 2010 — and his former coach, Peters, by then with the Chicago Blackhawks’ AHL farm team. But the real break came when Tampa Bay’s amateur scouting director, Al Murray, who’d first seen Johnson while scouting WHL games for Canada’s national junior team, told then-Lightning GM Steve Yzerman about the smallish American routinely outplaying everybody else.

Yzerman phoned Johnson during the WHL playoffs and soon signed him to an entry-level contract.

Johnson struggled early his 2011-12 rookie AHL season, especially with his defensive game, but eventually helped lead the Lightning’s affiliate in Norfolk to the championship. By 2012-13, with Tampa Bay’s new affiliate in Syracuse, he became the AHL scoring champion and MVP.

He debuted with Tampa Bay in March 2013 and the following season became a Calder Trophy finalist as the NHL’s top rookie. By 2014-15, he was centering the Lightning’s top line as the team made the Cup final, losing to Chicago.

Johnson had 23 points in 26 postseason games as arguably his team’s top player.

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Now, after 153 career goals and 339 points, he has another crack at the Cup — albeit with reduced ice time from 2015 and increasingly on the right wing. There’s talk the Kraken might select Johnson — who posted the lowest point-per-game average of his career this season — in the expansion draft next year if he’s unprotected, especially with former Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke heading Seattle’s franchise.

But first, Johnson and the Lightning have their hands full with the Stars, whose suffocating defensive scheme limited Tampa Bay to just 13 shots the first two periods of a Game 1 defeat. The normally elusive, puck-control-minded Johnson has struggled these playoffs, posting just seven points in 20 games heading into Game 2 Monday night, which the Lightning won 3-2 to even the series.

Still, he and his talented teammates would undoubtedly trade individual accolades to finally emerge with hockey’s ultimate prize after going an NHL-best 343-172-47 during Johnson’s seven full regular seasons. So, nobody’s counting the Lightning or Johnson out yet — especially the last coach to cut him from a team.

“I tell kids all the time, this kid came out and obviously he’s turned into an outstanding NHL hockey player,’’ Littler said. “Coaches make mistakes. And absolutely, if somebody doesn’t keep you, go to the next team. Obviously, he’s done a great job.’’