On Friday, the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 6-3 to take a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final. Although it was a total team effort from the Lightning, Tyler Johnson shined bright among the boys in white sweaters. It is fair to say that he is playing his best hockey of the season, showcasing the value he brings to the team.
The 2020-21 season hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for him, though. Throughout the regular season, scratching him from the team was a popular position among many Lightning fans. However, he has proved time and time again why he deserves a spot in the starting lineup. Quite frankly, Johnson doesn’t get enough credit.
A Tumultuous Offseason
Imagine for a second that your boss informs you that, because of financial problems, your employer of nearly a decade is going to transfer you elsewhere. That would stink, wouldn’t it? Now, imagine that no other company is willing to take you. After adjusting their finances, you ultimately have to return to work for the company that decided your services weren’t valuable enough to keep you around. What would your attitude be like returning to work on the following Monday?
If I am being honest, I would have a hard time not being salty. This is the situation that Johnson found himself in during the offseason. Coming off of their 2020 Stanley Cup win, the Lightning found themselves needing to alleviate some cap space. General manager Julien Brisbois contacted Johnson about the possibility of moving the veteran forward via trade. Johnson agreed to waive his full no-trade clause, but no suitors came knocking. Just days later he was placed on waivers, making him free to take by any club in the league. Again, there were no takers.
Johnson was waived a second time as the start of the regular season approached. He wasn’t picked up and was scratched for the Lightning’s opening game, missing out on the banner raising ceremony. When Johnson’s good friend Bobby Ryan was asked about the situation, he said:
“For me, it would have been crushing. If I was him, I would have been bitter about the first game, not being dressed when the banner goes up. But it’s part of the business, and Tyler understands that. With the cap being what it is, it doesn’t mean the team thinks any less of him. And he absolutely loves it in Tampa… He never wanted to leave.”‘How Tyler Johnson delivered what is potentially the final big moment of his Lightning legacy’, The Athletic, July 3, 2021.
Despite everything that transpired, Johnson never lashed out when he could have easily created a toxic environment in the locker room. He returned to the lineup on Jan. 15, just two days after the opening game.
The Ultimate Team Player
Entering the season, Johnson was often criticized for his decline in performance. In the eyes of many, he wasn’t playing well enough to justify his $5 million cap hit. Unfortunately, he didn’t do himself any favors during the regular season. He made several glaring mistakes that led to goals for opposing teams. He also went on several extended goal droughts, at his worst going 21 games without finding the back of the net. In 55 games played, he tallied eight goals and 14 assists. He did excel in some categories, though. He posted the second-best Corsi for percentage of his career, 55.5, and his best faceoff win percentage since his rookie season, 54.8.
It is important to note that Johnson’s role has shifted a lot in recent seasons. Coming off of a phenomenal 2015 Stanley Cup run, he averaged a career-high 18:49 minutes of ice time in a top-6 role during the 2016-17 regular season. Since then he has shifted to a bottom-6 role, averaging just 13:40 minutes of ice time this season. Although his regular season was subpar, he has stepped up his game this postseason, making several key plays when the Lightning needed it the most.
In Game 4 of the Lightning’s Round 2 series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Johnson lit the lamp for the first time in the playoffs. It was a critical goal, tying the game and erasing a two-goal deficit. The Lightning went on to win the game and in the next game, won the series. When discussing Johnson’s role in the playoffs, head coach Jon Cooper said,
“He’s a selfless player that puts the team first, and whatever role he’s in, he plays it to the best of his abilities. And he’s proving time and time again that come playoff time, he’s a big contributor for us.”‘Smith: Why Tyler Johnson’s ‘selfless’ attitude in crazy year for Lightning should be admired’, The Athletic, Jun 8, 2021
Johnson has been in his best form of the season against the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. He has been buzzing when he’s on the ice, getting in on the forecheck, retrieving pucks, and getting to the front of the net. His hard work paid off in Game 3, finding the back of the net twice.
Johnson scored the Lightning’s fourth and fifth goals of the night, shutting the door on the possibility of a comeback by Montreal. When speaking about Johnson after Game 3, Cooper said,
“As teams change and they evolve, and the salary cap (comes into play)… guys are coming up. But there was one thing we never lost faith in: Tyler Johnson… He never lost faith in himself. And roles change, you have to adapt, and nobody’s done it better than Tyler… I couldn’t be more happy for somebody, and I know that his teammates were for his performance tonight, and being rewarded for everything he’s gone through… I’m extremely happy for the win. I might be a little happier for Tyler Johnson.”
No, Johnson isn’t the player he was during the 2014-15 season, but many people were too quick to write him off this season. His role has changed, but his experience and knack for coming up big when it matters most were invaluable to the Lightning this season. Failing to send him to another team during the offseason was a blessing in disguise.
A Lightning Legend
Monday’s game against the Canadiens very well could be Johnson’s last in a Lightning uniform. The Lightning are in another salary cap dilemma heading into the offseason and some salaries will have to come off of the books. Johnson knows this, yet he has had the ability to focus on what is important right now. That is, of course, winning his second consecutive Stanley Cup. It will be a sad day when he is no longer with the team, but after nine seasons with the organization, his legacy in Tampa has been cemented.