Commentary

Jack Johnson built for Blue Jackets

Updated: April 23, 2014, 1:19 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two things about Jack Johnson.

One: Jack Johnson is pretty much built for the playoffs.

Not just his skill set, which is significant and expansive, but his joie de vivre, his rambunctious, take-no-prisoners style.

Two: Jack Johnson is pretty much built for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As the Blue Jackets' curious, up-and-down, back-and-forth first-round series against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins heads into Game 4 Wednesday night, Johnson has reinforced both hypotheses.

"I would just say [he's a] machine. He's a different bird, man. On and off the ice, he's just a thoroughbred and he's always in the gym," Columbus forward Cam Atkinson told ESPN.com Tuesday. "You can tell he's elevated his game tremendously in this playoff series and he's been one of our best players, if not our best player. It's great to see and hopefully he can keep playing the way he's been playing."

I've known the smooth-skating, hard-hitting defenseman a long time. I dug up an old piece I wrote in August 2005 not long before he would be selected third overall in the draft, as the NHL tried to dig itself out from its season-long lockout. At the time, Johnson talked about what he hoped would be a long future in the NHL and about visits with former classmate Sidney Crosby to Crosby's hometown of Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia. He talked about the joy of playing driveway hockey with his little brother, Kenny.

Now, many, many miles later, Johnson is playing against Crosby in the Blue Jackets' second-ever playoff appearance. And his brother Kenny is playing at Johnson's alma mater Shattuck-St. Mary's, the famous hockey prep school in Minnesota that both he and Crosby attended.

[+] EnlargeJack Johnson and Sidney Crosby
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarTeammates at Minnesota prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's, Jack Johnson and Sidney Crosby are now battling to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

This weekend, the younger Johnson will be in Columbus on a recruiting visit with Ohio State, something that gives his older brother, a standout at the University of Michigan, mixed feelings.

"Obviously, I'd love for him to go to Michigan, but they better get on it if they want him to go there. But wherever he goes I'll be thrilled for him. It's about him, not me," Johnson said Tuesday.

"We keep in touch a lot, see how he's doing. It's interesting how the relationship's evolved as he's gotten older. I can talk to him about more things. He's a lot bigger than I am. He's going to be a lot stronger than me soon. I kind of phased out wrestling from our relationship. I'm afraid for that day when he's going to pin me," Johnson said with a laugh.

In describing the differences between the two brothers' styles, Johnson jokingly suggests that he is a "skate first, ask questions later" kind of guy.

It has always been so.

The fact that Johnson landed in Columbus appears to have been a fortuitous twist of fate for both the player and the franchise.

When things went south in the relationship with the Carolina Hurricanes -- the team that drafted him two spots after his pal Crosby was taken first overall by Pittsburgh in 2005 -- Johnson ended up with the Los Angeles Kings. Then, he was dealt again at the 2012 trade deadline, this time for sniper Jeff Carter, who had essentially gone into the fetal position for weeks after finding out he'd been dealt to Columbus by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Carter didn't embrace the slow rebuild going on in Columbus, but Johnson seemingly couldn't wait. And that has not been lost on those who follow the game in Columbus, nor on his teammates.

Team president John Davidson was still with the St. Louis Blues when the trade was consummated and Johnson's positive reaction to the deal, even though it meant leaving a Stanley Cup contender, struck a chord with Davidson from afar.

That feeling has only been reinforced since Davidson joined the Blue Jackets' front office.

"It's very much appreciated in the community," Davidson said. "He's just hockey."

Even though this has been a difficult season in some respects, Johnson has been a pivotal part of the franchise's critically important evolution from "promise" to "playoff presence."

In the first three games of this series, Johnson has been a force, scoring in each game and adding an assist. His third-period goal in Game 2 set the stage for overtime and helped send the Blue Jackets to their first-ever playoff victory.

"Jack has been very good down the stretch and he's been very good in these first three games," head coach Todd Richards said Tuesday. "He plays like a man out on the ice. His skating, he can log the big minutes. He played close to 40 minutes in the overtime game in Game 2 and they're big minutes, tough minutes against the opposition's [best players]. You know he's playing against Crosby or [Evgeni] Malkin most of the night. Penalty killer, he's one of the first guys over the boards and he plays the power play, so every situation.

"He's a real important piece for our team, not only what he brings out on the ice and how he plays and being able to handle big strong guys that can skate, but I think he's got a lot of respect in the room from his peers in just how he plays out on the ice and he's a guy that takes care of himself. He's in the weight room, he's doing the right things. He's been a real key, key guy for us down the stretch."

Early in the season, things didn't go all that well for either Johnson or the Blue Jackets. While most would have presumed he was a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team for the Sochi Games, it didn't turn out that way. Johnson's early-season struggles combined with the evolution of young defenders Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson and Justin Faulk ultimately saw Johnson left off the squad.

It was among the most gut-wrenching, hotly debated decisions encountered by the U.S. selection committee.

Yet as the Olympics approached, Johnson's game turned around and he became a central figure in Columbus' surprising run to secure the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

[+] EnlargeJack Johnson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJack Johnson scored three goals and one assist in the first three games against the Penguins.

"He's taken it to another level offensively. You can tell," teammate Mark Letestu said. "I saw this from him right after the Olympic team was named; Jack took it to another level maybe with a chip on his shoulder, and I believe now he's playing the same way. He's got that chip on his shoulder and he's got something to prove."

Ron Wilson coached Johnson at the 2009 world championships and at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when the U.S. earned a silver medal, losing to Canada in overtime in the gold-medal game.

Wilson admitted he was surprised Johnson wasn't selected to play in Sochi, but what hasn't surprised Wilson is Johnson's level of play when it matters most.

"This year must have been devastating for him," Wilson told ESPN.com Tuesday. "Only a guy with his character could have bounced back to play the way he has."

Although Wilson admitted he thought Johnson might come across as cocky when they first met, the opposite was true.

"He was completely different than what I thought he was like," Wilson said. "He's a total hockey junkie. He can't get enough of it."

The longtime NHL coach said he thinks Johnson is playing with control, making good first passes and using his deceptively strong body to make life uncomfortable for the top Penguins forwards such as Crosby and Malkin -- both of whom are scoreless in the series.

Johnson figures his game really went up a notch back in early December.

"Yeah, I think from December on pretty much my game's where I wanted it to be," he said. "Just having fun playing. Happy with things. Things have fortunately been going well since pretty much Dec. 1 on."

As for the fit in Columbus, he couldn't be happier.

"I don't think I've changed at all since I've been here," Johnson said. "I'm just the same guy, I think, same guy that came out of college. I just ended up in a different city, just different place, different atmosphere. It's worked out great for me. I couldn't be happier here and it's been a great fit for me."

Home is a relative thing when you're a pro hockey player, but there is obviously a high comfort level for Johnson with this team and his role on it.

"Absolutely. It definitely feels like home to me," the 27-year-old said. "I spend the offseason in Michigan and I spend the winters in Columbus. A lot of people give me a hard time about that, but it's worked out ideal for me."

Ideal, too, for a franchise that needed a player to want to be here.

"He comes to work every day and plays hard," Davidson said. "And we have a lot of young players around and they see that. The torch gets passed the right way with guys like Jack Johnson."

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