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Lightning's Johnson elbows way into rookie scoring race

When Marty St. Louis on Jan. 7 found out he was not on Canada's Olympic team, the crowd of reporters around his locker at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg was so thick, it spilled into Tyler Johnson's space one stall over.

The Lightning's rookie center took it well and relocated.

Two weeks later it is not as easy to crowd out Johnson who, without much fanfare, has elbowed his way into the league's rookie scoring race and perhaps the rookie of the year race as well.

"He definitely should be more talked about," fellow Tampa Bay rookie Ondrej Palat said. "He really is underrated right now."

Johnson's numbers aren't.

His 30 points in 50 games entering Monday are second in the league among rookie forwards, one point behind Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon, last summer's No. 1 overall draft pick. Johnson was tied for the lead with 18 assists, tied for fourth at plus-12, leads all rookies with an average 18:33 of ice time and is a mainstay on the penalty kill and power play.

He also is well-schooled in the right things to say.

"I know I'm up there but I don't know where," Johnson, who also has 12 goals, said of the rookie scoring race. "It's nice, but I'd just rather just get wins for the team. I'm fortunate to play with good players, so points are bound to come."

Being overlooked is nothing new for Johnson, who because of his size — 5 feet 9, 182 pounds — was undrafted. But after getting 53 goals and 115 points in 71 games in 2010-11 for his hometown Spokane Chiefs of the junior Western League, Tampa Bay signed him as a free agent.

In two seasons with AHL Norfolk and Syracuse, respectively, Johnson had 68 goals, 133 points in 137 games and was last season's league MVP.

"The one thing about Johnny is he's got that fight in him," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who coached Johnson at Norfolk and Syracuse. "There's no quit in the kid and he's a winner. You can't have enough of those guys around."

With a 46.9 winning percentage, Johnson has to be better at faceoffs. That will come, he said, with more strength and a more consistent focus on creating 50/50 puck battles into which his wings can jump rather than concentrating solely on clean wins.

More advanced is his vision of the ice and ability to make a play, vital when centering for St. Louis and the opportunistic Palat.

In Sunday's 5-3 win over the Hurricanes, his cross-ice pass scooted past a couple of defenders and perfectly led St. Louis entering the offensive zone. St. Louis passed into the slot from where Palat scored for a 2-0 lead.

"When you're first up here you're thinking all these different things," Johnson said. "Your mind is running 100 mph. Now, it's more playing your game, all the things that got you here. That's what slows down. Now you know what to expect.

"The biggest thing is having confidence," he added. "Seeing all those big names, people you idolized growing up, you get a little bit starstruck. At this point, I feel comfortable playing against just about anyone."

While making a name for himself, too.

"He's going to grow on the fans and media," Gudas said. 'I'm sure people will recognize him as the season goes on."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@tampabay.com. View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.

Climbing the ladder

Where Lightning center Tyler Johnson ranked entering Monday among the league's rookie forwards:

CategoryScoreRank
Points302nd
Assists18t1st
Goals12t4th
Winning goals3t3rd
PP assists5t1st
PP points8t3rd
Shots1102nd
Plus/minusPlus-124th
Average time18:331st

Lightning's Johnson elbows way into rookie scoring race 01/20/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 20, 2014 9:54pm]
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