There was a time last October when Tyler Johnson thought he’d never play for the Tampa Bay Lightning again, much less a prolonged playoff run that left him on the brink of a second Stanley Cup.
He was designated as a salary cap victim after Tampa’s bubble championship, and was placed on waivers 11 days after the Lightning drank Stanley’s champagne. Even when Johnson was unclaimed for 30 teams, entirely due to his $ 5 million annual contract in a flat-cap environment, Lightning engaged in business conversations involving one of the organization’s heartbeat artists.
Business simply triumphed over sentiment, which is why Johnson’s unexpected two-goal performance in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final sparked some sentimental feelings from head coach Jon Cooper on Friday night.
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“I am very happy for the victory,” Cooper said. “I could be a little happier for Tyler Johnson.”
This was not just any victory, remember.
He put the Lightning within reach of another Stanley Cup. They will have a chance to complete a four-game sweep over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.
To understand why it meant so much within Lightning’s locker room to have Johnson rewarded in this scenario, you must also take into account everything that happened before his close departure from the organization last fall.
It was a culture change for the Lightning, he signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2011 and a monstrous performance on Cooper’s Norfolk Admirals team in 2012 that set an American Hockey League record by winning 29 consecutive games. on the way to the Calder Cup.
When Tampa reached the Stanley Cup final in 2015, it did so with Johnson centering the dynamic triplet line between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. The fact that he played most of that series against the Chicago Blackhawks with a broken wrist is one of the main reasons they came up short.
In the intervening years, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde beat him on the depth chart. That made him expendable when general manager Julien BriseBois was forced to explore tough decisions related to the salary cap.
Johnson had a full no-trade clause last fall and worked with the Lightning on possible destinations that would be deemed favorable to him. That deal never materialized in large part due to the fact that Kucherov ended up requiring hip surgery that involved a five-month recovery and allowed him to be placed on long-term injured reserve during the regular season.
However, he had to sit out of the first game of the season after re-approving waivers and being assigned to the taxi squad as part of BriseBois’ January peak gymnastics. That meant Johnson was in suit when the Lightning unveiled their 2020 Stanley Cup banner at Amalie Arena.
But he didn’t let those around him be disappointed or bitter and ended up dressing up for the remaining 55 games of the regular season and 21 so far in these playoffs.
“A lot of guys would have gotten mad and taken it very differently,” said his teammate Patrick Maroon. “He armed himself and missed the first game of the year, he came in and played almost every game, lowered his head and worked.
“He was a huge part of this team.”
His first career two-goal performance in the Stanley Cup final came in the game he saw with the fewest minutes, playing just 9:08 on Friday night. He had been elevated to a second line winger when Alex Killorn missed Game 2 due to injury, but Cooper chose to return Johnson to his more natural position by centering Maroon and Mathieu Joseph on the fourth line for Game 3 and saw it. generate four. shots despite limited use.
Johnson has always been a player who finds a way. He is five foot five, which is why NHL teams rejected him in the draft even though he had won a junior world gold medal with Team USA and a Commemorative Cup with the Spokane Chiefs. .
He didn’t let that stop him from carving out a career most players would envy.
“There’s a reason Tyler Johnson’s trophy case is pretty full and it’s because he’s an ultimate team player,” Cooper said. “It’s selfless and there was a time in this organization where we needed to take another step and Tyler Johnson was one of the leaders of that and he has done it for years.”
Here he is now with a bonus championship at his fingertips and also an understanding that his place with the Ray is once again in doubt. Tampa’s tight situation will cost them more players this summer, and Johnson’s no-trade clause has since turned into a 20-team trade roster, leaving the soon-to-31-year-old with slightly less control over his situation. .
Perhaps the Washington state native will have the opportunity to play close to home with the Seattle Kraken through the draft expansion process, or elsewhere.
If that turns out to be the case, their performance on Friday should serve as a nice parting gift for the Lightning. The organization is in a much better position today than the day you first joined.
“There has been a bit of success with our team and sometimes when you are the head coach you get a price tag, but it really depends on the players,” Cooper said. “It’s guys like Tyler Johnson who have really taken our team to a new level. Now, in a slightly different role, it still has a positive impact.
“The good guys are rewarded and he is being rewarded.”