Johns uses prospect camp to build case

Stephen Johns is ready to try and stick with the Blackhawks after four years at Notre Dame. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

CHICAGO -- Stephen Johns is an old pro when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks prospect camp.

Johns, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman, attended his fifth prospect camp this past week since being selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2010 draft.

This year’s prospect camp did have a different feel for Johns than the previous four. Unlike the other ones, this year’s camp wasn’t leading into another year at Notre Dame for him. Instead, this camp represented a launching pad for his campaign to prove himself NHL-ready for the upcoming season.

“Obviously I don’t know what’s going to happen this fall,” the 22-year-old Johns said on the final day of the camp on Friday. “Years prior I knew I was going back to school. It was a little different, a little bit more focus on playing as good as I can be. Impress them as much as you can every chance you get. Yeah, it was a little different. I was one of the older guys for this year. It was fun, though, a lot of fun.”

Johns was given a small window last season to showcase his game in a more advanced setting. He joined the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League in early April after his senior season at Notre Dame and played eight games down the stretch for the IceHogs.

Johns’ transition to the AHL was smooth in that short period. He had one goal, four assists and was a plus-2 in the eight games. He also impressed some of the Blackhawks’ personnel with his defensive ability, an improved offensive game and what he can do physically.

“I found he was very mature and had a real good head on his shoulders,” IceHogs coach Ted Dent said recently. “I really liked his mindset and his whole approach mentally. As for his game, his game was good. He’s a big body, finishes checks. We knew that part of his game going in. He competed hard. We were in a dogfight to make the playoffs, and he jumped in and really bought what we were doing.”

Blackhawks director of hockey administration and general manager of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard was also positive about Johns’ late-season performances.

“I was very impressed with him late in the year, a young guy coming out of college,” Bernard said in a recent interview. “He has size. He’s a big, big body out there. He wasn’t afraid to jump up. He’s a real nice player. He fit in perfectly. I was impressed with his demeanor, work ethic, great kid.”

Johns also drew a favorable review from Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman on Friday. Now Johns will look to do more of the same when he reports to training camp in September.

Johns’ shot to make the Blackhawks to open the season likely depends on what NHL player or players Bowman trades in the coming months. The Blackhawks are over the salary cap and need to dispense of at least one player before the season begins. Johns could make the roster if the Blackhawks trade one or two defensemen and are far enough under the cap to insert his $800,000 cap hit.

Bowman said Friday he talked to Johns and defenseman Adam Clendening during the prospect camp about their NHL potential next season.

“That’s what training camp is for, is for these players who are very close to show that they should be on the team,” Bowman said. “We’ve got a lot of depth. From our perspective, that’s a good thing. From the players’ perspective, they may get frustrated that they have a lot of good players to try to beat out. The only thing you can do as players is to keep improving your game.

“In Adam’s case, he’s continued to do that. He had a great rookie season in the American League and then he followed that up with an even better second year. That’s good to see. You want players to be pushing to make the NHL. In Stephen’s case, he had a great four-year career and Notre Dame. He was able to join Rockford late in the season and he played excellent in the couple of weeks he was there.

“Two very contrasting styles. Stephen is a big strong player and Adam is a playmaking defenseman, offensively-minded. You can never have too many defensemen. We’ve said that many times. I’d rather have a lot of depth on defense and it’s nice to see both players continuing to improve.”

Johns plans to enter training camp, which will open at Notre Dame, as if he was competing to win an NHL roster spot.

“You got to look at it as you have a chance,” Johns said. “It’s tough to say. Some things have to happen. The only thing I can control is how I play and how I mentally prepare. I’m going to into it with hopefully I can make the team. That’s what everyone is trying to do at training camp. I’m going with eyes wide open. If it doesn’t happen, I just have to work harder and harder so it does happen.

“There’s definitely going to be some nervousness going through my body. It’s going to be an experience I’ve been waiting for five years now, four years. Ever since I was drafted, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, this moment. I’ve been training for it and practicing for it. That’s why I went back for another year in school for this opportunity to be the best player I can be at this point of my career. I’m looking really forward to it. Hopefully it really works out.”