What to expect from Tyler Johnson as the final year of his contract approaches
The veteran forward will be a free agent after the '23-24 season.
Currently, only eight forwards who finished the season with the Blackhawks are also signed for next year, and very few – if any – are particularly exciting names. Yes, there's a probable influx of a few good, young players coming in Lukas Reichel and Connor Bedard, but the rest are either players who still haven't quite proven themselves – like Phillip Kurashev or Taylor Raddysh – or are definitive bottom-six players – like Jason Dickinson or Reese Johnson.
However, the Blackhawks do have one proven, middle-six forward signed for next season, and that is Tyler Johnson.
This classification might surprise some, but Johnson did objectively produce like a middle-six forward. He finished the season with 32 points (12 G, 20 A) in 56 games this past season, a respectable 0.57 points-per-game rate that puts him slightly under average second-line production (around 0.62) but well above an average third-liner (roughly 0.47). The breakdown of points by situation was that 23 came at even-strength – 17 at 5-on-5, four at 4-on-4, and two at 3-on-3 – while nine were on the power play. The percentage of goals in which he contributed a point when on the ice was also about 70-percent or better in all situations, a very solid contribution rate.
Some important context to note is who Johnson's top linemates were last season. While he did spend time with the two most productive players on the team in Patrick Kane and Max Domi, Johnson actually had more contributions away from them. He played about 111 minutes with Kane and Domi, but that was only nine games as regular linemates and only three (1 G, 2 A) of Johnson's 17 points at 5-0n-5 came as a direct result of Kane or Domi.
Instead, the majority of Johnson's production at 5-on-5 happened with similar middle-six forwards – or at least those with the potential to be middle-six forwards. His most common line combinations – other than Kane and Domi – were Taylor Raddysh and Cole Guttman (about 141 minutes), Raddysh and Dickinson (just under 137 minutes), and Raddysh and Toews (right at 104 minutes). Dickinson, as mentioned above, is a useful but lower-line forward, and Toews has declined to an best middle-six player, while the other two both have the possibility of becoming second or third-line options. Obviously most of Johnson's production – nine (3 G, 6 A) of Johnson's 17 points at 5-on-5 – was with a contribution from Raddysh.
The reason this context is good to know is because it illustrates that Johnson was neither carried to his point total this season nor was he particularly dragged down by anyone else. This isn't to say that Johnson didn't have issues – he went 14 games without a goal at one point this season – but it suggests that, if Johnson is given similar quality linemates next season, there's a good chance he can come close to this level of production at 5-on-5 again or close to it.
Let's look a little more at Johnson's micro stats to see how possible a repeat performance is next season.
That's a lot of red, but it's actually a big improvement in key areas over Johnson's performance last year. The biggest areas to look at when trying to determine if his results are repeatable are the offensive stats, obviously, where he stacks up as a middle-six player again. Johnson is above average in his shot (7.14 per 60) and scoring chance production (7.87 per 60). Where he could be better is with his shot assists, but some of this could be due to his linemates' lack of shooting ability, because in general his passing is above average. As seen above, Johnson is especially good at setting up point shots and one-timers, so more offensive defensemen – which the Blackhawks lacked last season – would be able to turn those passes into shot or goal assists more readily.
Considering how Johnson is often described as a gritty and effective forechecker, what is surprising is that his numbers for puck retrievals are so poor outside of a few key situations. He touched the puck in the defensive zone a lot, usually typical of a player who breaks up plays at a high quantity, but he had a difficult time turning that into successful clears or exits. For example, his 5.11 exits per 60 was below average – fifth lowest on among Blackhawks forwards. Granted, Johnson was not the only one – the Blackhawks, as a team, were one of the worst at exiting the defensive zone – but it's something that a player with Johnson's reputation should be better at in general.
Still, despite some obvious decline in performance, Johnson is a useful player in the right role. And he's specifically useful to the Blackhawks because he can be both a good veteran presence in the lineup for some of the incoming youngsters and trade bait at the next deadline. It was hard to imagine the latter in the past due to the multi-year, $5 million cap hit that Johnson carried on his contract, but he only has one season remaining now and the Blackhawks should be willing to retain 50 percent of that salary. That amount, pro-rated at the deadline, should be enough to entice some Cup-hungry team into trading for him. The only snag is Johnson's injury history, so this scenario depends heavily on him staying as healthy as possible through the 2023-24 season. There is a chance the Blackhawks trade him before next season, but that seems pretty slim: the Blackhawks need both bodies to fill out their roster and cap hits to hit the cap floor.
This all hinges on whether or not Johnson can repeat his production and performance from last season, but it seems likely that he can at least contribute enough to be a placeholder and leader in the locker room. In what is sure to be another rebuilding year for the Blackhawks, that's perfectly fine – anything else will be a bonus when it comes to Johnson.