After years of speculation, discussion, and even a few trips through the waiver wire, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tyler Johnson parted ways on July 28th. In many ways, this trade was indicative of where Johnson’s career has gone in Tampa Bay, as the former star was sent to the Chicago Blackhawks along with a second-round pick in a pure cap-dump deal.
For Tampa Bay, this move was inevitable. The Lightning desperately needed cap space, and Johnson no longer fit in their nightly lineup at his cost. While anyone would love to hav him in their bottom-six as a veteran presence, the franchise needed every dollar they could muster to help re-tool their roster in the offseason and to open up more space to get their next wave of players under contract.
With his time in Tampa Bay now complete, let’s look back at what Johnson brought to the Lightning, as his incredible story is one of the best in franchise history.
Johnson Went From Undrafted Free-Agent to All-Star
What is sometimes forgotten when you talk about Johnson in recent years is just how important he was to the Lightning over the last decade. As an undrafted free agent, he joined the team with little fanfare but quickly found a place of prominence with then AHL-affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals. Playing alongside future franchise faces like Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, he helped to lead the Admirals not only to the 2012 Calder Cup, but a professional hockey record 28-straight wins.
Johnson followed that season up by being named the 2013 AHL MVP for the Lightning’s new affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. This breakout put him amongst the Tampa Bay’s top prospects and showed that he would be ready for NHL ice time in the near future.
After starting the 2013-14 season on Tampa Bay’s third-line, Johnson experienced an exceptional rookie season. Due to an injury to Steven Stamkos, he was given the opportunity to play on the top-line alongside Palat and Lightning legend Martin St. Louis. In this expanded role, he thrived, posting 24 goals and 50 points, while earning a nomination for the 2014 Calder Trophy with Palat.
Johnson built upon this rookie season with an even better sophomore year in 2014-15, when Nikita Kucherov joined him and Palat on a line to form the devastating ‘Triplets,’ which was one of the most dominant lines in the entire league. He would go on to post 29 goals, a career-high 72 points while earning an all-star nomination.
In the postseason, Johnson continued this hot streak, putting together one of the best runs in Lightning history as they fought their way to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. In 26 games, he scored 13 goals and 23 points, while scoring the teams’ only playoff hat trick in franchise history. This run cemented him as a face of the franchise, who would be a key part of the organization for years to come.
Johnson’s Career Stalled After 2015
After this successful 2015 postseason, Johnson continued to be a solid if not unremarkable player for the Lightning. Over the next six seasons, he would break 20 goals scored twice, but he also saw his role reduced with the team as new players forced their way into the lineup. By the 2020-21 season, he was playing less than 14 minutes each night, down from his career-high of 18:49 in 2016-17.
This reduction in playing time would have been fine, if not for the seven-year, $35 million contract he signed in 2017. This deal wasn’t bad when he signed it, but by 2020, the $5 million cap hit was starting to feel like a weight on a franchise that needed every dollar they could spare.
Due to this contract, Johnson was waived multiple times by the Lightning in 2020, hoping that someone would take his cap hit off their hands. When this didn’t happen, he returned to the lineup in a depth, fourth-line role that a different player may have scoffed at. Instead, he stayed professional, keeping his head high while contributing needed goals to Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
While he may have played his last game with the Lightning, this doesn’t mean that Johnson will be forgotten. In fact, his legacy with Tampa Bay will be etched in the team’s history forever. Without his hard work and dedication, there’s no telling if the team would have experienced the same level of success over the last decade.
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Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.