TAMPA — While both are rookie centers, Nathan MacKinnon's and Tyler Johnson's paths to the NHL couldn't be more different.
MacKinnon, 18, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, a 6-foot, 182-pounder who has made an immediate impact in the Avalanche lineup.
Johnson, 23, went undrafted, the 5-9, 182-pound native of Spokane, Wash., taking several years to blossom before emerging on the Lightning's top line.
But the two have pushed themselves into the rookie of the year picture heading into tonight's game between the teams at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"MacKinnon is the top candidate," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said. "But Johnson has to get big consideration."
This will be the Tampa Bay's first look at MacKinnon, a Halifax, Nova Scotia, native who has, so far, lived up to the hype. He leads all rookies in scoring, his 33 points coming on 17 goals and 16 assists.
"I'm pretty impressed," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "I kind of see a lot of similarities in his game to mine. He's a really great skater, has a great shot. You surround him with the right players, he's going to do what he's continued to do all year. I watched him in the Memorial Cup. It was pretty amazing to see how dominant he was at the (junior) level, and he's going to be a good player in this league for a long time. Good thing he's in the West."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said MacKinnon deserves credit for performing well with all of the pressure on him as the top pick. But with the Avalanche boasting talented forwards in Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon has benefited from not having to carry the load on the top line. He also doesn't play in all situations, including the penalty kill.
"It's kind of like starting off at Level 7 on a crossword before you get to Level 10," Button said.
Johnson played four seasons with the junior Spokane Chiefs before signing with the Lightning in March 2011 and spending two seasons in the American Hockey League, where he was the MVP last season. But Johnson was thrust into a large role this season after Stamkos broke his right tibia Nov. 11.
Johnson centers the top line with captain Marty St. Louis and fellow rookie Ondrej Palat, playing both on the power play and penalty kill. Cooper said Johnson's success comes partly from his accelerated playing time and whom he's playing with. His 31 points rank second among league rookies, 13 goals tied for fourth, 18 assists second and plus-14 tied for third.
"It's awesome to be up there," Johnson said. "But there's no way I could be up there without playing with good players."
While height is one big difference between MacKinnon and Johnson, Cooper said they share some on-ice characteristics.
"Speed is the same. Both can zip around the ice," he said. "Jonny has a little more experience in the pro game, has played more minutes and plays all situations where MacKinnon doesn't yet. But both have a nose for the net."
And both will be in contention for the Calder Trophy as top rookie.
"The fact (Johnson) is in this conversation means he's developing into a player well beyond what anybody ever thought, and that's a testament to him as well," Cooper said. "Both had different paths, but both are really good hockey players."
Lightning MOVE: Right wing Richard Panik, a healthy scratch for the past two games and five of the past seven, was reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Friday.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]