Tyler Johnson adds opportunism, experience to Blackhawks’ uncertain group of centers

The 31-year-old center will be able to earn a larger, more productive role with the Blackhawks than he held with the Lightning.

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Former Lightning forward Tyler Johnson will have a bigger role with the Blackhawks.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When the Lightning raced to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, forward Tyler Johnson was in his second NHL season and a huge part of the team.

He tied with Steven Stamkos as the Lightning’s regular-season leading scorer with 72 points, earning his first All-Star Game selection. In the playoffs, he was the team’s outright top scorer with 23 points, beating Nikita Kucherov by one point despite playing in the Cup Final with a broken wrist.

“[That] was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have even been on the ice.”

The heartbreak of losing that series to the Blackhawks lessened when Johnson, now 31, won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles the last two years.

But as he now flips sides — traded Tuesday from the Lightning to the Hawks — he’s excited for the chance to re-earn a large role like the one he used to have.

“I really did feel, last year and this year, that something was going to happen [trade-wise],” Johnson said. “Maybe it took a lot longer than anyone anticipated, but . . . now that it happened, it’s going to make my life easier. [I can] relax a little bit, not wondering what or if something’s going to happen. I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Johnson’s playing time decreased in step with the Lightning’s success. After averaging 18 minutes per game his first four seasons, he averaged 17:00 in 2017-18, 15:57 in 2018-19, 14:33 in 2019-20 and 13:40 in 2021.

He had only eight goals and 22 points (over 55 games) this past season, tied for ninth on the team. There was simply too much talent above him — the talent that made those back-to-back championships possible — to penetrate the top six.

“[My] role has been different in Tampa, with just the way our team was built and what we needed,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be a team-first, whatever-you-need-me-to-do-I’ll-do [guy]. Our entire team was that way — that’s why we won. My role was a little bit smaller than what I wished, but I’m hoping with this fresh start coming to Chicago.

“I talked with [Hawks general manager Stan] Bowman quickly once the call was made and everything. He just echoed what I just said: I’ll get a better opportunity, and he’s excited to see what I can do.”

Johnson and Bowman actually go way back. Never drafted, Johnson nearly signed with the Hawks over the Lightning in 2011 after a breakout 115-point season in the Canadian juniors. Deciding between the two teams at the time was “almost a coin flip,” Johnson said.

As part of a new-look Hawks team, he again won’t have a second- or third-line spot handed to him. But he’ll have ample opportunity to earn one.

Outside of Johnson and Kirby Dach, there’s not much certainty among the Hawks’ centers. Jonathan Toews’ health status and return timeline remain notoriously unclear. Dylan Strome and Ryan Carpenter are both natural centers but spent much of last season on the wings. Recent signees Adam Gaudette and Jujhar Khaira can also play either center or wing. Incoming youngsters Lukas Reichel and Henrik Borgstrom haven’t yet shown they can handle center duties in the NHL.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson take the place of Pius Suter, who departed to the Red Wings in free agency. Suter’s opportunism made him a quietly effective center for Patrick Kane last season.

Johnson displays much of the same opportunism. His production isn’t dependent on volume but rather efficiency. His career 13.1% shooting percentage is well above the league average and is even higher than Kane’s 11.9%.

Over the last three seasons, 68.1% of Johnson’s shot attempts were scoring chances, putting him sixth among 18 regular Lightning forwards and 57th among 416 regular forwards league-wide, according to Natural Stat Trick. Last season, his rate was 71.8%, second on the Lightning and 40th in the league.

He’s particularly adept at reaching and converting rebounds. He averaged 1.185 rebound shots per 60 minutes last season, according to data from analytics expert Corey Sznajder — better than anyone else on the Lightning or Hawks and 25th in the NHL. That knack for rebounds was a big part of what made Suter excel, too.

Johnson is also decent with faceoffs, having won 49.5% of 6,436 in his career and an impressive 54.8% of 310 last season. That’s a rarity among Hawks centers; the only two who won more than 47% of their draws last season, David Kampf and Carl Soderberg, have both left the team.

These flattering stats shouldn’t imply Johnson is a superstar. Many of the other aspects of his game are merely average, and his $5 million cap hit for the next three years is a major overpay; it’s how the Hawks were able to acquire him for essentially nothing. But his strengths do align with the Hawks’ needs.

“Johnson adds a large amount of skill and depth to our offense,” Bowman said in a statement Tuesday. “His versatility across the lineup, two-way play and championship experience throughout his career make our lineup stronger.”

There’s also that experience factor. The Hawks suddenly have more players who have won Cups with other teams (Johnson with the Lightning, Brett Connolly with the Capitals and Marc-Andre Fleury with the Penguins) than players who won Cups with the Hawks (Kane and Toews).

In fact, Johnson received the trade news while preparing for two days with the Cup in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. He took the trophy with him golfing, to the local hockey arena, to an event for first responders and to a party with friends and family.

Then he mentally prepared for a seismic, but likely beneficial, change in his career.

“ ‘Bittersweet’ is a pretty good word for everything,” he said. “I get to celebrate with the Cup, say a last goodbye and look forward to the next chapter of my life: playing with Chicago.”

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