Commentary

Tyler Johnson proving his worth

Undrafted rookie showing tremendous promise for contending Lightning

Updated: January 29, 2014, 2:58 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Tyler JohnsonScott Audette/NHLI/Getty ImagesTyler Johnson and Martin St. Louis have formed a formidable combination for the Bolts.

TORONTO -- You wonder, really, when you watch Tyler Johnson play, the way he speeds down the ice, the way he seems to have eyes around his head in finding teammates with passes and the way he can pick a corner from in close with a wrist shot, well, you just wonder.

You wonder how he was never drafted.

"Probably my size," the 5-foot-9 Johnson answers, no doubt a clip he's given a thousand times already to inquisitors trying to piece together his story.

The 23-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning center, as of Wednesday morning, was just one point off the rookie scoring lead, his entry into the Calder Trophy debate as unforeseen as anything. But then again, once you see him play, you're not surprised at all.

Which raises the question, other than his size, what else could he have done to impress scouts during his junior years?

"I don't know what more he could have done," Tampa's head amateur scout, Al Murray, told ESPN.com this week. "In fact, there's nothing more he could have done."

"You have to credit Al, he recommended that we sign him," Tampa GM Steve Yzerman said. "[Murray] really felt that with his skating and strength, [Johnson] could do it at the NHL level."

Murray was keeping an eye on Johnson for a few years while head scout for Hockey Canada. Johnson was American but Murray kept noticing him at games and events where he was scouting Canadian players.

"Then when I came on with Tampa, he was going through his overage year," Murray said. "And he really took things to another level that year in Spokane."

In his final year of junior eligibility, Johnson put up 53 goals and 115 points in 2010-11 while playing a 200-foot game. Murray approached.

"He was actually the first guy I met from the Tampa organization," Johnson said Tuesday morning before a game versus the Maple Leafs, recalling his meeting of Murray. "I remember one game exactly that he came to, I thought I played well but I was upset that we lost. When he saw me afterwards, I told him it was a bad game for him to watch. But he said, 'I have a lot faith in you, I think you're going to be a great player. We'd like to keep in contact and see how things go.' He's just one of those guys that the Tampa organization does a great job of having honest people who just tell you how it is. And I love that."

Said Murray: "It was a pretty easy to start talking to him to come on board, then Steve did the final sales pitch and the rest is history. We're fortunate that he chose us because he had other teams interested in him. Steve is a great finisher."

Indeed, the great irony of it all is that Johnson, in the end, got to pick his team a few years after no team picked him in the draft.

"We had at least 4-5 teams who were pretty serious," Johnson's agent, James Nice of CAA Sports, told ESPN.com. "Tampa ended up being the most serious but also felt like the best opportunity at the time. It's certainly worked out."

Added Johnson on why he signed with Tampa in March 2011: "I felt I would be given an opportunity. That's the biggest thing -- getting an opportunity or someone believing in you for just a second so you have that confidence that you can prove other people wrong. Thankfully for me, Tampa is an organization that doesn't care what you look like, your size or anything like that. It's how you play on the ice."

Size might not be the only reason Johnson was originally passed over.

"He doesn't have the traditional hockey pedigree either, he's from Spokane, Washington," Nice said. "He probably wasn't getting as much credit as a kid from Medicine Hat or Minnesota."

To that end, Johnson credits his parents, his dad having coached him most of his minor hockey years.

"My mom and dad gave me every opportunity possible," Johnson said. "During summers, my parents would drive me to Vancouver every weekend -- that's a seven-hour drive -- to play against better players. That was a big sacrifice for my parents to do that every weekend, financially and emotionally. But without that, I don't think I would be where I am today."

One thing you pick up about Johnson, he's got lots of credit to throw around: he credits his parents, he credits Al Murray for scouting him, he credits Tampa coach Jon Cooper given their relationship in the AHL and for making him a better all-around player, he credits his Tampa teammates and certainly captain Martin St. Louis for being such a positive influence.

But what you won't hear is Johnson credit himself, where perhaps the most credit is due. Lots of kids walk away from their dream when their name isn't called at the NHL draft. Johnson did not. He didn't let the draft snub stop him.

"I really didn't think about it, to be honest," Johnson said. "I just always played. It's one of those things that in my whole life I've had to deal with it. The big thing for me is that I've always had a lot of good people around me who can push me, like family, which has always been there for me. They've always had confidence in me and faith in me.

"I just love the game. I've always had fun. I never really focused too much on signing an NHL contract. I just wanted to play the game and hopefully my dream would come true."

[+] EnlargeTyler Johnson
Graig Abel/Getty ImagesTyler Johnson's speed has been one of his biggest assets for the Lightning

His journey is far from over, of course. He will continue to have to prove himself because of his size. One solid rookie season does not make you an NHLer for life. But if he needs a role model for keeping that chip on his shoulder, he needs to look no further than his captain, another smallish player who has fought through all kinds of adversity in becoming one of the game's great players and certainly one of its best leaders.

"Obviously, playing with Marty has helped a lot," Johnson said of his linemate, 15 years his senior. "One of the main reasons I signed with Tampa is the fact that Marty was here and he's done so much."

St. Louis downplayed the fact that, just like him, Johnson wasn't drafted.

"I don't make a big deal out of it. I don't treat him as undrafted player," St. Louis told ESPN.com. "I treat him as the player that he is. As a young guy, you got to be willing to retain and listen to information because the experience we have as older players, we have a feel of how things are, or how things may look like something but they're not. He's done a good job of that.''

On the ice, St. Louis says Johnson is playing the game the way it needs to be played to succeed. The two have been full-time linemates since Dec. 5.

"He plays the game fast," St. Louis said. "Especially in today's game with the back pressure, if you slow everything down, you always have people in front of you. If you play fast, attack lanes and push the pace, that's what you need to do, and he's able to do that. We're stressing that as a line."

Aside from the 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) and plus-15 in 53 games Johnson carried through Wednesday, according to behindthenet.ca, only St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula and linemate Ondrej Palat play tougher minutes among Lightning forwards, which makes his 16 rookie goals even that much more impressive. After putting up 37 goals and 65 points in 62 AHL games last season, Tampa also gave him his first NHL taste last season when he had three goals and three assists in 14 games.

"He's just continued to improve this year," Yzerman said. "You see it time and again, all the smaller and shorter guys, they get often looked over, maybe not so much now but in the past, but he's fast and really strong on his skates. I think power is more important than height, and he's another guy proving that."

Johnson figures his draft snub was actually a blessing in disguise.

"Looking back at it, it was probably a good thing for me to get passed over in the draft, just to have those extra years and that extra time to kind of mature and all that," Johnson said. "Then, at the end, I had my own choice to make. It was a tough thing to go through at the time, but by March 2011 [when he chose Tampa over other teams], I was pretty thankful for it."

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