Long road led Tyler Johnson to success in Tampa

Tyler Johnson had just turned in a game that was, by his standards, pretty rough.

It was 2011, and Johnson was just finishing up his final season with the Spokane Chiefs, one in which he blossomed offensively after being challenged by coach Don Nachbaur. In all, Johnson registered 115 points that season.

Tampa Bay Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray was among those in attendance late in the season and had arranged a postgame meeting with Johnson. Murray was waiting outside the Chiefs dressing room when Johnson emerged.

They sat down to chat in a nearby room.

Murray's main duty that night wasn't to evaluate Johnson. He'd already done that. He'd been doing it since he was scouting games in the Western Hockey League for Team Canada and kept noticing the best player on the ice was often this little American center.

He saw a kid whose skating was as good as it gets. He saw a player with great hockey sense and someone who had developed into a dominant contributor on both the Spokane power play and penalty kill. He'd watch Johnson kill penalties almost by himself, winning faceoffs, and then when the puck was cleared making it all but impossible to gain the zone with his aggressive forecheck.

When Murray was hired by the Lightning, he told GM Steve Yzerman that Johnson was a player Tampa should look hard at signing.

That was the mission on this trip to Spokane. He and Johnson sat down, and Murray let Johnson know he'd been watching him much longer than the below-average game he'd just played.

"He was a lot harder on himself than I was," Murray told ESPN.com.

Murray also let Johnson know he viewed him as a future NHL player, and the Lightning had a lot of interest in him. They were far from alone.

Johnson, now listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, attended two camps with the Minnesota Wild and they had an offer coming for him. So did the Chicago Blackhawks. In all, nine teams came with offers for the player they all could have drafted if everyone hadn't been scared off by his size.

This was the moment that made being passed over in the draft perfectly fine. Johnson had his choice of NHL teams with whom to pursue a career in hockey, a career he wasn't always so sure was coming. In fact, he was uncertain enough to do job-shadowing in the medical profession with aspirations of becoming an anesthesiologist.

Johnson sat down with his dad and they looked at rosters. They tried to make projections, with the expectation that it would take a couple years in the American League to get his NHL shot.

There was even a coaching projection. The Blackhawks wanted him and Johnson was close with Bill Peters, then the coach of Chicago's AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, after playing for Peters his first season in Spokane.

Peters wanted him badly in Chicago. After two or three conversations, Johnson sprung a question on Peters.

"How many years left do you have on your deal?" Johnson asked Peters.

"One left," Peters answered.

"You're going to go to the NHL," Johnson predicted.

He was right, and it wasn't likely to be in Chicago. Johnson was smart enough to recognize it, and one year later Peters was working for Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings.

"He's brilliant," Peters told ESPN.com in a conversation about Johnson. "This guy is a special kid. If my son turns out like Johnny as a person, I've done my job."

The decision came down to Chicago and Tampa Bay, with a phone call from Yzerman putting the Lightning over the top. During the call, Yzerman offered to fly to Prince George, British Columbia, where Johnson was playing, to make his pitch.

Johnson was in a hotel, looked out the window at all the snow, and told Yzerman it wouldn't be necessary.

"He ended up calling my dad and my dad is a huge Steve Yzerman fan," Johnson told ESPN.com. "I ended up getting a phone call from my dad 20 minutes later and he sounded like he just won the lottery. He was the happiest guy on earth."

The call worked, but it wasn't the Johnsons who won the lottery. It was the Lightning, who got a top-six center for the price of an entry-level contract.

The Professional Hockey Writers Association recently rolled out its Masterton Award nominations, and there's been a renewed commitment to the original spirit of the award, which had been threatening to become a comeback player of the year award. Instead, this season many of the nominations are highlighting the original intent of the award: to reward "the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey."

Johnson, the Tampa Bay chapter's nomination, fits that description perfectly. He's successful now, but it didn't come easy.

He was a Calder Trophy finalist last season and has outperformed the winner, Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, in their sophomore seasons.

Johnson has already topped last season's point total -- currently at 69 points through 75 games. Only St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko has more even-strength points than Johnson's 46. Johnson's 27 goals are third on the Lightning, and he centers one of hockey's best lines between wingers Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

"He's an elite, elite skater. He's a great thinker. He's got good tenacity," Babcock said. "He knows how to play with and without [the puck]. Him, Palat and Kucherov -- to me, that's a real line. A real line."

It's a real line that gives the Lightning a real shot in the postseason. Games are won in the postseason because of depth, so teams can either try to slow Steven Stamkos or they can focus on slowing Johnson's trio. Most of the time this season, one or the other has made the opposition pay.

And if you're concerned about Johnson's size in a postseason that typically favors the bigger, heavier forwards, well, he's heard it before.

"People have always doubted me because of that," Johnson said. "Every age group I've been in since peewee, people have always said, 'Next year, guys are going to be bigger. He's not going to be able to do it. He's doing well this year, but next year, it's going to wear him down.' People are always going to say that about me."

His size prevented him from getting any serious college scholarship offers and following the path he originally wanted to take when weighing his hockey options as a teenager. He was drafted by the USHL and then got cut in training camp when he was 17. His hockey career got off to anything but a fast start.

Johnson grew up playing hockey in Spokane, Washington, which meant weekend trips to Vancouver in the family minivan that began at midnight on Friday to arrive in time for Saturday morning games. It was the best way to get Johnson ice time against top competition.

Starting around 9 years old until he was 15, he also played for his dad Ken, who coached him in Spokane. Sometimes on those car trips or while watching games on television, the two would talk systems and how to best implement them onto the team in Washington, often stealing ideas from the teams in Vancouver.

"He was a student of the game," Ken Johnson said of his son during a recent phone conversation. "We would sit down together and say, 'OK, what are these guys doing on the power play? What do they do on their breakout?' You try to pick up some pointers that way. Basically, that's probably what he had to learn at a younger age. Sitting down with me, using him to try to pass that on to his teammates."

Along the way, Johnson became one of the smartest players on the ice. Already gifted with speed, he learned exactly where he needed to be and where opponents were going at all times. It worked then and it works now.

"He's one of the smarter players," Lightning teammate Ben Bishop told ESPN.com. "He understands the system -- both sides of it. What the other team is doing and what we're doing. A lot of guys feed off him when it comes to that type of stuff."

Knowing what opposing players are trying to do, he'll bait them into mistakes with his stick position. He has the smarts to quickly break down an opposing player he's trying to beat. If they're bigger, he plays with the courage to get inside them. If he knows he's quicker, he'll use his speed to beat them wide.

"He is a rink rat," Peters said. "He loves the game. He's a great skater, he's powerful for a smaller guy. He has a great hockey body."

"You're not going to get a lot of time and space when you're out there against Tyler Johnson," said 6-foot-7 teammate Brian Boyle. "He knows where the puck is going. He's in the right place and he competes. He has that low center of gravity. He wins a ton of battles. It's hard for a guy like me to contain a guy like him. He gets so low and he's so quick."

Johnson's career started to progress when Peters saw him playing summer hockey in 2007 at Eagles Ice Arena in Spokane. He was the best player on the ice during games that included players who already were playing for Peters in Spokane.

Peters told Spokane GM Tim Speltz that Johnson should have a spot on the team, and Speltz concurred.

The two met with Ken Johnson at a Chinese restaurant and made the pitch. They knew him better than anyone, they said, having drafted him in the 11th round of the WHL's 2005 draft and then tracked him locally.

"Tyler knew he could play, he was very confident," Speltz told ESPN.com. "Once the organization committed to him, specifically the coach committed to him, it was easy for him to make the decision."

In Johnson's first year in the WHL, he played on a checking line that was instrumental in Spokane winning the Memorial Cup. By his fourth season, he was in the middle of the scoring race.

That growth as a player continued into the AHL, where coach Jon Cooper -- now the coach in Tampa -- helped mold a player who was a little too focused on offense into one willing to compete on both sides of the ice.

"Over the course of that year, he developed from one of the guys who was one of the worst defensive forwards to one of the best," said Syracuse captain Mike Angelidis, a player Johnson credited for helping him transition to professional hockey. "He learned the simple things, like stopping and starting in the D zone. You watch him now, he's totally different. He's relied on on the PK. Back then, he probably wouldn't have been. He's fine-tuned."

It's taken him a while to get fine-tuned.

Four years of junior hockey. Two seasons in the AHL. Passed over in the draft, missed completely by colleges.

And now, he's fine-tuned himself into a player who is one of the most important to Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup aspirations.

"It's amazing how long it takes to be an overnight success," said Murray, with a small laugh. "It's a real credit to him and how hard he was willing to work."