TAMPA — Bliss Littler said Tyler Johnson is one of the most fun players in the world to watch.
Every time Littler sees the Lightning center on TV, he smiles. He also often gets teased.
You see, Littler was the coach who cut Johnson from the USHL Tri-City Storm back in the 2007-08 season; the year before, he also admits, he cut Ben Bishop, now the Lightning's starting goalie. Now Johnson, 24, is one of the NHL's leading scorers, centering arguably the game's hottest line.
"That one we got wrong," says Littler, now coach of the NAHL Wenatchee Wild. "Coaches make mistakes. I tell kids every year at camp, 'Don't let any coach wreck your dream.' "
Johnson certainly didn't. He's having an All-Star caliber season. With 17 goals, and team bests of 28 assists and 45 points, you could argue Johnson has been more valuable than captain Steven Stamkos. But when the All-Star rosters are announced tonight, don't be surprised if Johnson is left off. He has been overlooked at every turn in his career, why should this be any different? Johnson, at 5 feet 9, 183 pounds, was cut in the USHL and went undrafted after a spectacular career with his hometown Spokane Chiefs junior team. He attended camps with the Wild (twice) and Coyotes without a job.
But Johnson has flourished since signing with the Lightning in March 2011. A winner at every level, he went from AHL MVP to Calder Trophy finalist last season. This season, Johnson entered Friday third in the NHL in points (45), ahead of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and even Stamkos.
While Johnson might be deserving of an All-Star spot, the game is often a popularity contest, and he's still not — yet — a big name.
"It would be a tremendous honor," Johnson said. "But, at the same time, it's just an All-Star Game. There's a lot more things I want to do here."
Johnson's peers certainly have taken notice.
"He's been unbelievable," Sabres center Tyler Ennis said. "He's not the biggest guy, but he seems to be the hardest working guy. He's fun to watch."
"I know Johnson is going to be a superstar in this league," Senators goalie Robin Lehner told the Ottawa Sun.
Littler said Johnson came into their camp having just recovered from mononucleosis, and they based their evaluations off his performance there instead of his history. "We didn't do our homework," Littler said.
Neither did other teams.
"A lot of college coaches, to this day, when we're sitting around and Tampa pops on, they usually wisecrack, 'What USHL team did that kid play for?' " Littler said. "There had to be 50 Division I colleges at that camp watching. And I always say, 'Nobody else took him at the time.' "
Johnson went in the 11th round of the WHL draft, having watched his friends — with less impressive careers — go much higher. But landing with his hometown Spokane Chiefs might have been the best thing that happened to him.
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Chiefs coach Bill Peters, now coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, first noticed him during a summer pickup game.
"Jonny was out there, and he was as good as some of our guys at the time," Peters said.
Johnson played a "shutdown" role for the Chiefs, facing opposing teams' top line, a key cog on the penalty kill. The Chiefs won the Memorial Cup, with Johnson — a rookie — named MVP.
"He is one of the most intelligent players I've ever coached, and I had him when he was very young as a 17-year-old rookie," said Peters, who also served as a Red Wings assistant.
Johnson said Peters was the first person to tell him he could play in the NHL, which gave him a huge confidence boost.
"I've always been kind of put down because of my size,'' Johnson said. "People never really thought I could play. I never really thought I'd be drafted. I didn't really care. I was having fun, I was playing hockey.
After a four-year run with Spokane, Johnson went undrafted, which he said ended up as a blessing. He could pick where he would end up.
"I don't really care what people say about the size, it's more people saying they didn't believe I could play, that kind of motivated me," he said. "I was cut from the USHL team and then I go win the Memorial Cup the same year. I knew I could play there. But I had to go a different route. It just kind of worked."
Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray first saw Johnson in Spokane in 2007.
Murray, at the time, was working for Team Canada, and he continued to follow Johnson.
"He was the best player at almost every age group," he said.
When Murray was hired by the Lightning in 2010, he told general manager Steve Yzerman about Johnson. And it was Yzerman, the Hall of Fame player, who sealed the deal in a phone call, with Johnson picking the Lightning among several suitors.
"It was more my style, he wasn't promising anything," Johnson said of Yzerman. "If I worked hard enough, I could create my own opportunity. I felt like Tampa was on the upswing, and I wanted to be part of it."
Going from juniors to pro hockey was a huge adjustment.
Making his AHL debut for Norfolk, under current Lightning coach Jon Cooper, Johnson led the Admirals to a record 28-game winning streak and Calder Cup. But, individually, he had to grow as a player.
"I was actually the worst plus-minus on the team at one point," Johnson said. "I just wasn't really focusing too much on the D-zone, had trouble with our system and adapting to it. It took me a little while. Eventually, something just kind of clicked. The rest is history."
After two seasons in the AHL, Johnson set a franchise rookie record with 24 goals last season, surpassing Stamkos. He was a runnerup for the Calder with longtime linemate Ondrej Palat.
Since Johnson was put back with Palat, and Nikita Kucherov Oct. 24, the line, dubbed "The Triplets," has been magical. Johnson is tied with Kucherov for the league lead in plus-minus (plus-26), Palat is third at plus-22.
Johnson credits his linemates for his success this season, as well as added confidence in making plays. A key piece of the Lightning's power-play and penalty-kill units, Johnson's biggest asset is his speed, and he has excellent vision and a high hockey IQ.
"He can skate, he can shoot, he can pass, he makes plays," Palat said. "He's got everything. I wish I could have what he has."
Cooper said Johnson's competitive edge is "higher than most people," and it had to be, as "big players have to play themselves off teams, small players have to play themselves on teams."
Just ask Littler, who reached out to Johnson's dad, Ken, and apologized for the snub.
"It's a great story," Littler said. "And it's worked out pretty well for Tyler. I don't think he's too upset about it."
Contact at Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.