Blackhawks Facing Tough Offseason Decision With Tyler Johnson

The Chicago Blackhawks are now over a month into the offseason, and while the NHL Playoffs are still in full swing, the Blackhawks’ management isn’t taking the night off. As a result, the team has a lot of decisions to make when it comes to the NHL Draft, free agency, and the trade market. They have to improve, and there are many different avenues they can explore, all of which include making decisions on players on the current roster and where they may fit into the future. It’s easy to direct that conversation toward free agents, but those who still have time left on their contracts make for the hardest resolves. One of those players is Tyler Johnson.

Johnson’s Unlucky Season

Johnson came to the Blackhawks in July 2021 from the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of a salary cap relief trade for both teams. Tampa Bay took on Brent Seabrook’s contract, while the Blackhawks took on Johnson’s seven-year, $35 million contract. It seemed like a great move because the Blackhawks acquired goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Seth Jones around the same time, and getting all of those players are the types of actions you take when you want to win, which is what the team was hoping would happen. Yet, that plan went awry for Chicago and Johnson.

Johnson started the season only playing in the first eight games before missing some time with neck discomfort stemming from an Oct. 29 game versus the Carolina Hurricanes. It wasn’t considered that serious then, but it became just that. Three weeks later, he was placed on long-term injured reserve and got artificial disk replacement surgery in December, the highly-publicized surgery that Vegas Golden Knights’ forward Jack Eichel received a month prior.

Johnson was expected to miss three months, and he was right on schedule as he made his Blackhawks’ return on March 3 against the Edmonton Oilers. However, 6 games after his return, he accidentally got hit in the head with a puck by teammate Dominik Kubalik when the Blackhawks’ faced the Ottawa Senators on March 12. He was placed on the injured reserve again and missed six games due to a concussion.

Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Johnson returned against the Buffalo Sabres on March 28 and played through the rest of the season. After that, the only hiccup was that he was a healthy scratch four times in the Blackhawks’ final 14 games. He missed 56 games, which is the most amount of time he has missed during his 10-year career.

Johnson’s Impact On Blackhawks

Although Johnson missed a majority of the season, he was still able to have an impact on the Blackhawks during the games he did play. When the season started, he was named the first-line center alongside Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, and he was deployed on the team’s first power play unit as well. It was a stark contrast for a player who barely saw power play time and was a bottom-six player in Tampa Bay in 2020-21. Although that first line was loved during training camp, it didn’t pan out as hoped and only lasted for two games before being split up. Afterward, he saw time on the second line with Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik. Still, he mostly found a home on the third and fourth lines, particularly the fourth line with linemates including MacKenzie Entwistle, Jujhar Khaira, and Ryan Carpenter.

Although a natural center, Johnson wasn’t always used in that position, occasionally playing wing, and the times he did play center were outstanding. Out of the 51 draws he took, he had 31 wins, resulting in a faceoff percentage of 60.8, which led the entire team.

Related: Tyler Johnson’s Legacy as the Lightning’s Unlikely, Undrafted Star

During Johnson’s first eight games, he had one goal and three points and was a minus-6, with his time on ice (TOI) averaging 14:26. Both of his assists came on the power play. I liked him on the power play, as he was an excellent net-front presence (despite his size), and he can shoot the puck well. Although it was a small sample size, the point production seemed on par with what was seen from him in the past, and he played a solid depth role on the fourth line, which was his specialty in Tampa, and it was nice to see that carry over in Chicago.

In the season’s final seven games, Johnson tallied four points (2 goals, 2 assists). He made it even sweeter by scoring the lone goal in the seventh round of the shootout against the Vegas Golden Knights on April 17, which lifted the Blackhawks to victory.

It happened to be the Hawks’ final home game of the season, and it was the second shootout goal of Johnson’s career in six attempts. He looked to be back to his old form of being the two-time Stanley Cup Champion that the team traded for, so it was unfortunate that they didn’t get to see more of him because those results would have been very welcomed through their dire winter, but at least he got to end the season on a high note. His final stat line was 3 goals, 4 assists, and 7 points, along with a minus-8 in 26 games.

Johnson’s Place in Question

Although the injuries were out of Johnson’s control, the challenging part of the NHL is the “next man up” mentality, and because he missed so much time, the Blackhawks had a plethora of options that got an extended look in the bottom-six in his absence.

Chicago acquired Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh from the Lightning as part of the Brandon Hagel trade package at the trade deadline in March. They brought Reese Johnson into the fold from the Rockford Icehogs, and they gave him a two-year, $1.6 million extension on April 13. Finally, in January, they acquired Sam Lafferty from the Pittsburgh Penguins and recently signed him to a two-year, $2.3 million extension on April 29. Using all of those players, plus Philipp Kurashev and Kirby Dach, was the reason for Johnson’s healthy scratches. Kurashev and Dach are free agents this summer, and I’m assuming both will get re-signed. It’s a crowded group, albeit uncertain where each player’s future lies.

Besides the roster pieces that could be forcing Johnson’s hand, the team is currently in a rebuild, and it’s unclear if newly appointed general manager Kyle Davidson wants him in the fold. He still has two years left on his contract with a $5 million cap hit. With multiple free agents that the Blackhawks could look to re-sign, including Dylan Strome and Kubalik, the team needs cap space to do that. In a recent interview about Chicago’s offseason, Davidson stated, “Hopefully we bring in some young players that we have to budget some major funds for, because that means we’re bringing in some pretty high-end talent.” (from ‘Q&A: Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson on Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Jeff Greenberg and the long road ‘back to the top’, The AthleticNHL, 04/29/2022).

Tyler Johnson Chicago Blackhawks
Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Davidson’s quote signals that he wants to acquire young, cheap players that will grow with the club. Unfortunately, at 31-years-old, Johnson doesn’t fit what Davidson is describing. A crowded roster, the rebuild, and the salary cap are three huge factors working against him staying in Chicago.

Johnson is Worth Keeping

You can argue that Johnson is too old and too expensive for the upcoming Blackhawks, and those concerns are valid, but another side to that is that players of his caliber are worth keeping. Age and price aside, he is a Stanley Cup champion, and he brings a presence that will never go to waste. When head coach Derek King was asked what the Blackhawks need next season, he stated, “You need a couple veterans added to the group of the young guys to help… mentor the Daches and Entwistles and [Reese] Johnsons and stuff. If I was the coach coming in, I would love to see a couple more veterans come in.”

Coach King is right. The Blackhawks had the third-youngest team in the NHL, with the average age being 26.12-years-old. Toews and Kane are the big ones remaining, age-wise and from the dynasty years. Their futures with the team are iffy, and they could use another veteran to help create a winning culture again. In addition, Johnson could mentor the young centers in the faceoff dot, such as Dach and rookie Lukas Reichel, and he can help the team establish a winning culture with his production.

Related: Blackhawks Strike Gold with Tyler Johnson Trade

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stated last year, “There’s a reason Tyler Johnson’s trophy case is fairly full. It’s because he’s an ultimate team player. He’s selfless, and there was a time in this organization when we needed to take another step and Tyler Johnson was one of the leaders of that.” That quote says a lot. Having players like him that have the work ethic, drive, selflessness, and championship experience are invaluable to any team.

I know there are plenty of reasons to trade Johnson in the offseason, as every NHL team needs a player like him, and the Blackhawks could shed salary in the process, but it also makes sense to keep him. It’s a tough decision, but going into next season with him on the roster makes the team better, not worse.

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