BRANDON — Tyler Johnson is back in a Lightning uniform following an offseason in which he was the subject of trade talks.
Interestingly enough, his presence on the team might be as important as ever.
Just a few weeks ago, Johnson didn’t know where he would be playing this season. Tuesday, the 30-year-old began the second day of training camp working with the Lightning’s top power-play unit, positioned in front of the net in the slot.
After winning the Stanley Cup in September, the Lightning tried to move Johnson and his $5 million salary to help get under the salary cap. He gave Tampa Bay a list of teams he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause for. After interest dried up, the Lightning placed him on waivers but saw no takers.
Johnson’s awkward return to the Lightning — the team solved its cap-crunch problems in other ways, mostly through placing star winger Nikita Kucherov on long-term injured reserve — has been described as a non-factor by the team and Johnson, who was eager to move forward in his first training-camp interview Tuesday.
“I don’t think we really need to get into too many details about everything,” Johnson said. “But there is a lot of stuff that went on behind the scenes at the end there. Things went quick. And then obviously with the way that the season was going and stuff, as far as not knowing when we were going to play and stuff, I think the whole league as a whole was just kind of a little bit of a chaos mode there.”
Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said last month that three teams reached out to him during the pandemic pause interested in acquiring Johnson. But when he reached out to those teams in the offseason, there was no match. Two no longer had interest, and the other had a cap crunch.
“I think it’s a situation where, for a lot of us, I think a lot of our names were in trade talks,” said forward Alex Killorn. “Unfortunately for him, his got a little bit messier with waivers and such. But I think he realizes that a big part of that was the cap crunch.
“And I know for us as players, we all understand how important he is to our team. I think looking right now where he fits into the lineup, he’s going to be a big part of this team, especially with Kuch out this year.”
The Lightning need a way to replace Kucherov’s production, and that makes Johnson — who two years ago scored 29 goals, including 27 at even strength — a key piece to the solution.
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“Tyler Johnson’s helped our team for as long as I’ve been here,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And we’ve won a lot of regular-season and playoff games because of the work of Tyler Johnson. I wasn’t involved in the rumor mill and all the things that were going on, but I do know that all the players that are here are glad they’re here. They want to be here.”
Giving Johnson a first look on the primary power-play unit is one example.
“Johnny can put the puck in the net,” said Cooper, who said he wants a right-handed shot in the slot position. “We don’t know if we’re going to stay with that the entire camp, but as of now Johnny’s familiar with that position, as well — but not much, so we’ve got to get him in some reps.”
Despite the uneasiness of the offseason, Johnson — who has played his entire eight-year career with Tampa Bay — said he’s happy to still be with the team. Kucherov’s injury will be difficult to overcome, but the Lightning return most of their Cup-winning squad.
“Being a part of this group, part of this team, they’re my family,” Johnson said. “They have been for the last eight, nine years or whatever the heck it has been. So we’re looking forward to this year. We think we have a really good team and a really good chance to try to do something special again, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
Cooper said last year’s team was full of players other teams gave up on, from defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian to forward Pat Maroon, and they played big roles on the championship team. So, going unclaimed could give Johnson additional motivation.
“I’ve watched a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders come in and have great years,” Cooper said. “And Johnny’s another one. So I would think that he’ll be a pretty motivated kid and popular guy in the locker room. I’m pretty sure he’s glad that a lot of our team stuck together, and I expect great things out of Johnny.”
Said Johnson, “I think I’m always motivated, especially when you’re on a team like we are where we can do something special. So I’m just focusing on that. Whatever opportunity, whatever spot I get put into, I’ve just got to do the best I can, and I’m ready for it.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
• • •