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Lightning's Johnson healthy, happy again after injury-plagued season

Tyler Johnson says that in Tuesday’s preseason opener he had fun, something he lacked a lot last season.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tyler Johnson says that in Tuesday’s preseason opener he had fun, something he lacked a lot last season.

TAMPA — This is how Lightning center Tyler Johnson is supposed to look.

He fired off wrist shots with no limitations in Tuesday's exhibition opener against Carolina.

He pinned 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman Josh Wesley into the backboards on a forecheck, setting up a goal.

But the most striking sight for coach Jon Cooper was the blur Johnson, 26, left in his wake.

"His burst of speed," Cooper said. "He never had that in the first three months last year."

Truth is, Johnson didn't have much of anything in the first half of last season. The severity of his broken right wrist, suffered during the 2015 Stanley Cup final, was "much worse than we ever anticipated," Cooper said. The injury lingered, wearing on Johnson physically and mentally. He couldn't even do a pushup until January.

"He was trucking uphill all year," Cooper said.

But after a full summer of workouts, Johnson entered camp "stronger than I've ever been," driven to return to his All-Star form of 2014-15, when he scored 29 goals.

"I can't wait for this season, to really show what I can do," Johnson said. "I've got to get back to the player I know I can be."

That's good news for the Lightning, which needs Johnson to be his old self if it wants to win the elusive Stanley Cup. And the renewed health comes at a fortuitous time for Johnson, who can be a restricted free agent next summer.

"To see him now, you just see his demeanor and the way he is, it's night and day compared to the way he came into last year's camp," Cooper said.

•••

Johnson entered last season's camp saying, at least publicly, all the right things.

He was fine. He wasn't worrying about his wrist.

The truth? The wrist — which affects nearly everything he does on the ice, from faceoffs to shooting — had no strength or flexibility. Johnson tried to tough it out, which is not surprising considering how the undersized, undrafted forward had to fight his way into the NHL. But it's also no coincidence that he had four goals in his first 29 games.

"He didn't verbalize it, but you knew he was getting taped up all the time … working with certain braces," wing Alex Killorn said. "To come into a season with that, it's just a pain."

The injury didn't hamper Johnson just physically, but also mentally.

"Any time you get a little whack or hit, it definitely hurts, and then you start thinking about that," Johnson said. "You try to be a little bit more safe on that. And once you play safe, that's when other things happen."

But it was another injury, in the upper body, in December that allowed Johnson to rest and reset. He got better as the season wore on, finishing with 14 goals, including seven in the playoffs.

"I still think I could have been at another level," Johnson said.

Johnson didn't realize how weak he was until he began summer workouts. By July he finally felt 100 percent. He focused on his explosiveness, and it has paid off.

"I feel like my speed is there," Johnson said. "My game is a speed game, I have to have that."

You know what's also back? His smile. His swagger. Freed of physical limitations, Johnson feels normal. He can just play.

"It just makes the game a lot more fun," Johnson said. "Last year there were a lot of times where I wasn't having fun playing. That's tough. But I had fun (Tuesday)."

And, he hopes, more fun is to come.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

Lightning's Johnson healthy, happy again after injury-plagued season 09/28/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2016 9:53pm]
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