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'A little bit off' story of Lightning season for Tyler Johnson

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) blocks the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson (9) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) VZN105
Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) blocks the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson (9) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) VZN105
Published Nov. 25, 2017

PITTSBURGH — Lightning center Tyler Johnson had the chance for a game-breaking goal Friday against the Capitals.

With the score tied midway through the second period, Johnson, 27, had a shorthanded breakaway. His trademark speed was there, but with a defender on his heels, Johnson's wrist shot deflected off goalie Philipp Grubauer's blocker high and wide.

Just a little bit off. That has been the story of the season for Johnson, who has a 13-game goal drought, tying his career worst (over two seasons, from April 11-Oct. 31, 2015).

Johnson, who has 10 points (four goals) in the first 23 games, said his confidence isn't shaken. "I judge it more on chances," he said. "And right now, as a line, we're getting a lot of chances. They just aren't going in, for whatever reason. That will change. It's just the ebb and flows of the season."

If you go by chances, Johnson isn't that far off. He entered Saturday averaging 3.6 high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes, compared with 3.09 last year and 3.91 in 2015-16, says. His shots per game, however, were a career low (1.68), a full shot fewer than during his 29-goal season in 2014-15.

With the Lightning often going with 11 forwards, Johnson said it was a tough adjustment playing on the swing third line, which includes Alex Killorn and a rotating wing (typically from the top two lines). "It's something I've never done before," Johnson said. "You want to talk to your linemates after a shift on the bench, and one of them is already on the ice."

Johnson is still getting power-play time on the second unit, and coach Jon Cooper dubs him a "valuable utility player" for his work on the penalty kill. But it's probably not the type of production the Lightning expected when signing the 2015 All-Star to a seven-year, $35 million deal in July.

Johnson had been so encouraged after the longest offseason of his hockey career. He changed to a ketogenic diet — low in carbohydrates, high in fat — and said he felt "10 times better" than last season. He did strength training, too. Everyone wondered what a finally healthy Johnson could do after struggling with injuries the past three years.

But with second-year pro Brayden Point moving into a top-six spot, Johnson hasn't been quite as effective in a bottom-six role. His minus-7 is a bit uncharacteristic, though Cooper said Johnson has had some bad breaks and been a "victim of circumstance."

"His effort has been there," Cooper said. "That's what you're looking for."

Every team needs secondary scoring, and Johnson has a penchant for being clutch in the playoffs (42 points in 47 games). That could loom large if the Lightning's season is as special as many think it can be.

And Johnson has a little history on his side. The last time he went through this long of a single-season slump was the beginning of 2014-15. He went 11 games without a goal. But Johnson finished with 29 as the Lightning went to the Stanley Cup final.

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Slap shots

• Things weren't going well in Montreal before its 3-0 win over Buffalo on Saturday in goalie Carey Price's return from injury, and former Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin was shouldering some of the responsibility. Drouin, dealt to his hometown Canadiens in June, had 13 points (three goals) in 22 games and was minus-8 entering Saturday, and Montreal ranked last in the league in scoring and had the third-worst power play. "I didn't come here to get the points I have right now or the goals that I have," Drouin told the Athletic website. "I have to be honest with that. The production's not been there." Drouin went out and had two assists against the Sabres.

• Reporter Elliotte Friedman of Canada's Sportsnet said in a radio interview last week it wouldn't surprise him if the Lightning took a look at Sabres wing Evander Kane at the trade deadline. Kane, who can be an unrestricted free agent next summer, has 12 goals in 23 games this season. Not sure Kane is the best fit for Tampa Bay, though wouldn't rule out GM Steve Yzerman looking for a final piece at the deadline.

• Craig Button, director of scouting for Canada's TSN network, projected the 23-man roster for Canada at next month's World Junior Championships, and four Lightning prospects were on it: defenseman Cal Foote and forwards Taylor Raddysh, Brett Howden and Boris Katchouk.