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Tyler Johnson uses Lightning experience to adapt to Blackhawks’ 1st-line role

Johnson’s familiarity with Nikita Kucherov in Tampa is helping him fit alongside Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat in Chicago.

Tyler Johnson joins the Blackhawks after nine years with the Lightning.
AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Tyler Johnson assumed his trade from the Lightning to the Blackhawks would increase his playing time.

But he had no idea he’d arrive for the first day of training camp and find himself immediately on the first line, centering Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat.

“Coming in, with conversations I had with [Hawks management] ... we never really got to the nitty-gritty as far as where I’d play and who I’d play with,” Johnson said. “[Kane and DeBrincat] surprised me, but it’s worked pretty well so far. I’m excited to be in some games with them.”

Kane, DeBrincat and Johnson would be one of the smallest lines in the league, with all three shorter than 5-10 and averaging 176 pounds. But it’d also be one of the more offensively dangerous, representing 1,678 combined career NHL points and counting.

“There’s a difference between being small and being relentless,” Johnson said. “You look at the way ‘Cat’ plays. He’s a smaller guy but he works extremely hard — he’s bumping into guys, he’s taking the puck off their stick. To be honest, that’s harder to play against than a big guy who’s looking to take you out.”

In a vacuum, Johnson is probably over-slotted as a first-line center. He’s 31 and had fallen into a bottom-six role in Tampa the last few years.

In the Hawks’ current situation, however, it makes sense. The other center options are either working their way back to full health and fitness (Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach) or buried deep within coach Jeremy Colliton’s doghouse (Dylan Strome).

Johnson’s skills fit well in the role, too, much like Pius Suter’s did last season. The Spokane, Washington, native has always been an efficient finisher, as evidenced by his career 13.1% shooting percentage. And playing with Nikita Kucherov for years taught him how to operate alongside a superstar winger.

“Kane plays very similar to ‘Kuch,’ ” Johnson said. “They are guys who like to have the puck on the stick. They move it around, they find those open areas and they can make plays. They don’t need you to be right next to them, helping them all the time, because they’re able to get out of trouble themselves. It’s really just about trying to get open, trying to give them a passing lane and honestly just being ready to score.”

The data backs that up: Johnson indeed adapted his style to complement Kucherov. Over their last three regular seasons together, Johnson averaged 1.35 goals (per 60 even-strength minutes) with Kucherov versus 0.99 without. He averaged more shot attempts (13.3 vs. 12.8) yet fewer assists (0.61 vs. 0.96) with Kucherov, as well.

Johnson will likely employ a similar strategy — hopefully with equally effective results — alongside Kane, if that line does stick around through opening night.

Johnson brought more than the Kucherov experience from Tampa, though. He also brought a scouting report: the Lightning last season knew the Hawks had “a lot of skill,” but considered them “not necessarily the most gritty of teams.” (Unsurprisingly, the Lightning beat the Hawks seven of eight.)

The Hawks are hoping to disprove that reputation this season. Johnson has already noticed his new team playing with a “little more sandpaper.” The coaching staff has harped on physicality repeatedly during the first week of camp.

And Colliton, fittingly, sees the Lightning as a model for the Hawks in that regard.

“They went through that [change] themselves, right?” he said. “They had a high-powered team offensively, but couldn’t get it done in the playoffs for a couple of years... Then they, as a group, decided they were going to play a little bit different, and now they have two Cups.

“So yeah, that has an effect, [Johnson] coming in. He’s been through that transformation and understands the payoff for it.”