There was a time last October where Tyler Johnson figured he’d never get another game with the Tampa Bay Lightning, let alone an extended playoff run that left him on the verge of a second Stanley Cup.
He was earmarked as a salary-cap casualty following Tampa’s championship in the bubble, getting placed on waivers 11 days after the Lightning sipped champagne from Stanley. Even when Johnson went unclaimed by 30 teams -- entirely due to his $5-million annual contract in a flat-cap environment -- the Lightning engaged in trade talks involving one of the organization’s longtime heartbeat performers.
Business simply trumped sentiment, which is why Johnson’s unexpected two-goal performance in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final brought forward some sentimental feelings from head coach Jon Cooper on Friday night.
“I’m extremely happy for the win,” said Cooper. “I might be a little happier for Tyler Johnson.”
This was not just any win, remember.
It put the Lightning within reach of another Stanley Cup. They’ll have a chance to complete a four-game sweep over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night.
To understand why it meant so much inside the Lightning dressing room to have Johnson rewarded on this stage you must also account for everything that came before his near departure from the organization last fall.
He was a culture-changer for the Lightning, signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2011 and a monster performer on Cooper’s 2012 Norfolk Admirals team that set an American Hockey League record by winning 29 straight games on the way to lifting the Calder Cup.
When Tampa reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, it did so with Johnson centring the dynamic triplets line between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. The fact he played most of that series against the Chicago Blackhawks with a broken wrist is a major reason why they fell short.
In the intervening years, he’s been surpassed on the depth chart by Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde. That made him expendable when general manager Julien BriseBois was forced to explore difficult cap-related decisions.
Johnson owned a full no-trade clause last fall and worked with the Lightning on potential destinations that would be considered favourable to him. That deal never materialized in large part due to the fact Kucherov wound up requiring hip surgery that carried a five-month recovery and allowed him to be placed on long-term injured reserve for the duration of the regular season.
He did, however, have to sit out the season opener after again clearing waivers and being assigned to the taxi squad as part of BriseBois’ January cap gymnastics. That meant Johnson was in a suit when the Lightning unveiled their 2020 Stanley Cup banner at Amalie Arena.
But he didn’t let any disappointment or bitterness show to those around him and he ended up dressing for the remaining 55 regular-season games and all 21 so far in these playoffs.
“A lot of guys would have been pissed off and took it a lot differently,” said teammate Patrick Maroon. “He manned up and missed the first game of the year, he came in and played pretty much every single game, put his head down and worked.
“He was a big part of this team.”
His first career two-goal performance in the Stanley Cup Final came in the game he saw the fewest minutes -- playing just 9:08 on Friday night. He’d been bumped up to a second-line winger when Alex Killorn missed Game 2 due to injury, but Cooper elected to return Johnson to his more natural position centring Maroon and Mathieu Joseph on the fourth line for Game 3 and saw him generate four shots despite the limited usage.
Johnson has always been a player that finds a way. He’s listed at five-foot-eight, which is why NHL teams passed on him in the draft despite the fact he’d won a world junior gold medal with Team USA and a Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs.
He didn’t let it stop him from carving out a career that most players would envy.
“There’s a reason Tyler Johnson’s trophy case is fairly full and it’s because he’s an ultimate team player,” said Cooper. “He’s selfless and there was a time in this organization when we needed to take another step and Tyler Johnson was one of the leaders of that and he’s just carried that on for years now.”
Here he is now with a bonus championship within reach and also an understanding that his place with the Lightning is again in doubt. Tampa’s tight cap situation is guaranteed to cost them more players this summer and Johnson’s no-trade clause has since converted to a 20-team trade list, leaving the soon-to-be 31-year-old with a little less control over his situation.
Perhaps the native of Washington State will get an opportunity to play close to home with the Seattle Kraken through the expansion draft process, or elsewhere.
If that winds up being the case, his Friday performance should serve as a pretty nice parting gift to the Lightning. The organization is in a much better position today than the day he first entered it.
“There’s been a little bit of success with our team and sometimes when you’re the head coach you get some praise, but it’s really on the players,” said Cooper. “It’s guys like Tyler Johnson that have really taken our team to a new level. Now, in a little bit of a different role, he’s still having a positive impact.
“Good guys get rewarded and he’s being rewarded.”