BRANDON – Barring a late setback, Tyler Johnson will make his season debut Thursday against Vancouver.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper needed to talk with the trainers after practice Wednesday but said Johnson should be good to go after missing the opener against Florida last week. Johnson has dealt with an upper-body injury for the past two weeks.
"I might have a little rust," Johnson said. "I don't know. We will see how it goes. But I am playing with some really good players that are going to help me out. Hopefully we get back into it right away."
Those players: Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde. At both practices since the Lightning's victory over the Panthers, Johnson has skated on the second line with them.
No, Point won't be moved from center to the wing as Johnson joins his line. Instead, Johnson will play on the wing.
It's a position he played in the NHL for the first time last season. Much of that versatility stems from the system the Lightning runs in which both positions fill similar roles. It has given Cooper the flexibility to plug Johnson in wherever the Lightning needs him.
"It definitely helps the transition the fact that there really isn't anything to transition into," Johnson said. "Kind of playing the same thing. Maybe a little different on face-offs, but that's about it."
No matter if you are a wing or a center, the first skater who can retreat back to the defensive zone to defend typically becomes the center in the Lightning's system. If the last player back is a center, he will switch to playing on the wing.
Jon Cooper was inspired by Tony Colton, who died from cancer at the age of 17 in 2017. "I will do everything in my power," Cooper told him, "to continue the fight." #TBLightning @TBLightning @CoopersLaw @TB_Times @_NickKelly #GoBolts https://t.co/1xSt3MdK7o— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) October 10, 2018
Having the versatility to play both makes Johnson — and his new linemates Point and Gourde — valuable.
"All three of us have been playing center throughout our career, and I think it is good because you never know if Brayden falls down in the (offensive zone) and can't get back into the d-zone, for sure me or Johnny can jump in at the center position for a second or two," Gourde said.
Gourde had trouble not smiling when he started talking about Johnson joining his line. After all, Johnson has finished with at least 45 points in four of his five full NHL seasons.
"He's so good," Gourde said. "There's not much he doesn't do out there. I love playing with him because he brings some energy similar to the energy I bring, and I like that."
It's the speed and energy Johnson brings that make him a fit on the wing, Cooper said. Cooper also listed Johnson's ability to take pucks off the wall and ability to pull away from opponents as attributes that make wing natural for him, despite limited time at the position.
"He is one of the top players on our team," Cooper said. "We are going to fit him in where it gives him success and gives our team success. Sometimes it's on the wing. Eventually, I'd like him to play in the middle a little more regularly."
Contact Nick Kelly at [email protected]om. Follow @_NickKelly