Remember when the Blackhawks were winning Stanley Cup titles despite being not able to build long-lasting, quality center depth?
While the Hawks have had no lack of notable forwards, it seems possible that the 2021-22 season could turn out to be one full of depth down the middle. Not only does their current roster include a skilled center core, but it offers variety. Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach bring skill, Ryan Carpenter can fill the checking line role and Dylan Strome is able to slot in almost anywhere.
So who exactly is Tyler Johnson and where does he fit into all of this?
Who is Tyler Johnson?
Johnson is a 31-year-old center, who was signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011 as an undrafted free agent. At the time, Johnson’s 5-foot-8 stature left a lot to be desired for NHL scouts. The league was still in an era where size was seen as more important than skill. Despite Patrick Kane’s budding stardom as an undersized forward, it was still a bit before NHL GMs changed their mindset. Even Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau — who’s 5-9 — wasn't drafted until the fourth round (104th overall) of the 2011 NHL Draft.
Although Johnson’s size left a question mark, he proved the narrative wrong during his early years in the league. After a cup of coffee during the 2013 season, Johnson played his first full NHL season in ‘13-14, finishing with 50 points (24 G, 26 A) in 82 games. He then followed up that stellar line with 72 points (29 G, 43 A) in 77 games in ‘14-15, helping Tampa Bay go on their first run to the Stanley Cup Final in 11 years, only to fall short to our men of four feathers.
A 50-point season followed by an almost point-per-game pace of 72 points in 77 games? Those numbers are not a fluke, there's no luck involved there. Sure, Johnson had been playing with quality linemates, but playing with top-end talent doesn't always result in a rendezvous with 70 points.
Johnson suffered a wrist injury prior to the Lightning’s 2015 Cup Final appearance, which hindered his numbers both in the faceoff dot and on the scoresheet. He’s still been a productive offensive player — often flirting with the 50-point mark — but missing games with injuries has stifled his career numbers lately. Johnson is typically at his best when playing at even strength.
Tyler Johnson, traded to CHI, has seen both his minutes and underlying results drop in a straight line in the past three seasons. That said, his 5v5 production and goal scoring look pretty solid. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/4uLEMxMYwF— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 28, 2021
How can the Blackhawks use Tyler Johnson?
Words like “usage” and “system” get regurgitated here at SCH (mostly by me) more often than commercials advertising what “Kane and Toews drive” during Hawks broadcasts. So here's the long and the short of it:
The good news: Johnson can be used a lot of ways and in various systems.
The bad news: the Blackhawks constant line juggling and lack of creating matchups does not constitute as a system. Like asking a Blackjack dealer for a new deck, it doesn’t matter much if you suck at counting cards. Ideally, Johnson fits in well on either the second or third line. His game will excel when getting offensive zone starts and playing with finishers on his wings. If Toews is used in more of a third-line checking role (aka bum-slaying), that will open up a spot for Johnson to play with more offensive talent. However, if he ends up on the third line, it may turn into more of a land of misfit toys experiment than an actual checking line — which is okay if he has chemistry with his linemates and facing advantageous matchups.
The numbers: In his 2021 campaign, Johnson finished with 19 points (6 G, 13 A) in 55 games, playing what was essentially a fourth-line role on a loaded Tampa team. He won 54.74 percent of the faceoffs he took, he owned a 52.24 percent of shot attempt shares (CF%) and he regularly finished each season with expected goals for and high danger scoring chance percentages around 50 or above.
Despite his smaller stature, he’s not afraid to go into the more treacherous portions of the ice, as the charts below indicate. This first one shows the areas on the ice where Johnson’s shots have come from over the course of his career:
And here are the goals:
The bottom line: Johnson is a player who benefits from offensive zone starts. He wins faceoffs. He is able to help his team create high-danger scoring chances regularly. He can help create opportunities for his teammates or find the back of the net himself. Ideally, the Hawks can tilt the ice, set up draws in the offensive zone and get Johnson out there with some wingers who can finish.
The Blackhawks certainly do have some shiny new toys heading into next season, don't they? Between Johnson and the newest Hawks netminder, Marc-Andre Fleury, they've added players with five Stanley Cup Championships and seven Final appearances between them. Hawks fans can expect an experienced veteran, who is still in his low-30’s and has a lot hockey left to play. In the proper role, with the right linemates, Johnson could be a really fun player to watch. He has offensive abilities and a high hockey IQ.
Let’s just try to find this guy a decent nickname. No more food items ... and I guess ”Magic” is taken?