Tyler Johnson speaking up to try to help Blackhawks: ‘At least we’re trying to work together’

Johnson, who leads Hawks forwards in points and scoring chances per minute at five-on-five this season, recently even took the initiative to suggest a new play to coach Luke Richardson.

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Tyler Johnson reaches for the puck.

Tyler Johnson leads the Blackhawks in scoring-chance creation at five-on-five.

AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker

ST. LOUIS — As a lengthy Blackhawks practice finally wound down Wednesday, Tyler Johnson approached Luke Richardson during a break in drills.

Johnson, the veteran forward, and Richardson, the always all-ears-open coach, each gestured around at different spots in the offensive zone for a minute, then reached a common understanding and returned to their usual duties.

Richardson disclosed later that Johnson wasn’t just asking for clarification on a certain play, as one might have assumed. He actually had suggested a new play.

“We were just discussing some of our ‘O’-zone options, trying to make it automatic so we can get ahead of the other team a little quicker,” Richardson said. “He threw his two cents in on a play we could maybe add to that, and I agreed. We actually practiced it once early in the season, but things kind of go in rotation so we’ll probably add it in.

“I always like the players to discuss if we agree, disagree, or have thoughts on things to do better. They’re the guys playing and really feel what might be open and what might not be, so I like to have input.”

It’s somewhat rare for a player to take that kind of initiative, but it’s impressive that Johnson — a smart hockey mind with the experience (627 career NHL games) and track record (two Stanley Cups with the Lightning) to back up his ideas — did so. It demonstrates just how committed he is to trying to improve the team in spite of its overwhelmingly terrible record and lack of short-term ambition.

His string of bad luck with injuries, which cost him 56 games last season and 22 games so far this season, has made him appreciate more every day he’s healthy on the ice — and more committed to making impacts each of those days.

“It’s always tough when you don’t get the results,” Johnson said Wednesday. “But the one thing I’ll say is, when I wasn’t playing, that was a lot harder not being able to -contribute at all. Now, we can still build on things and work on things and talk about things. It just feels like at least we’re trying to work together, compared to fighting against each other.”

To call Johnson healthy at the moment is actually an exaggeration. He has played the last three games, yes, but he’s still dealing with pain in his left ankle. It’s not close to 100% and it won’t be for a while, potentially the rest of the season.

“[It] depends day by day,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you just have to go through it. But I’m doing all right.”

In spite of that handicap, he has been -arguably the Hawks’ best forward, albeit in only 12 games to date.

He has averaged 2.06 points per 60 minutes in five-on-five play, which not only leads the team but dwarfs second-place Phillipp Kurashev’s pace of 1.29. Surprisingly, Max Domi ranks third at 1.22 and Patrick Kane — with a large chunk of his team-leading point total coming on the power play — fourth at 1.15.

Johnson, 32, also leads the team in individual five-on-five scoring-chance generation, producing 10.3 per 60 minutes. Kane ranks second at 7.5, followed by Andreas Athanasiou at 7.4. And Johnson isn’t giving it back defensively as much as his teammates, either. His on-ice scoring-chance ratio of 45.0% leads team forwards, with Jujhar Khaira in second place at 43.8%.

Richardson has noticed that solid play. Last week, he inserted Johnson onto the first line with Kane and Domi, and they’ve shown promise.

“[Johnson is] the first guy in on the forecheck, and he finishes his check every time,” Richardson said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays big. [He also brings] maybe a touch more defensive consciousness. But we need him to have the ability to play with those guys, and he does.”

Former coach Jeremy Colliton had Johnson and Kane stapled together throughout 2021 training camp but then abruptly abandoned the idea, meaning they’d played only 15 total five-on-five minutes together before this recent move.

There’s clear logic behind putting them together, though. Johnson previously had success in Tampa alongside Nikita Kucherov, whose playing style he has often compared to Kane’s. He knows how to operate opposite a winger who needs the puck on his stick that much, which can be tricky for those -unfamiliar.

“[Kane is] so good at finding guys, finding lanes, making plays,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t necessarily need someone attached to him at the hip, trying to win those battles and make those plays for him.

“I like to think a little more north-south than those guys. My game is more driving, creating space, open lanes and trying to find those areas. So we could work pretty well together.”

Perhaps they’ll work well enough together to even translate the new play Johnson suggested Wednesday into a goal at some point.

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