Most Blackhawks likely have two memories of Tyler Johnson.
The first is limited. Johnson spent an injury-riddled 2021-22 season with the Blackhawks, one of a myriad of factors that played into in an otherwise horrid season for the franchise — and the fan base on and off the ice.
There’s also the memory of the 72-point center who racked up 23 more points in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Blackhawks fans got an up- close look at him with the Lightning in 2015 en route to the third and final Stanley Cup Championship of the “One Goal” dynasty.
That’s quite a contrast. And, unfortunately for Johnson, recency bias has Blackhawks fans mostly recalling his seven points in 26 games for Chicago last season.
Johnson missed three months with a neck injury that required surgery. Johnson elected to go the route of Jack Eichel and become the second player in the NHL to undergo an Artificial Disk Replacement (ADR) surgery.
While Johnson will likely never return to the level of play that he possessed in the latter of those two memories, the 32-year-old forward feels like he’s got more in the tank and can get back to where he was when he was churning out 30-point seasons in Tampa Bay.
“I think I’ll be able to be a lot better than I was,” Johnson said Friday. “I think a lot of that has to do with feeling healthy, having a summer, mentally and physically, everything just kind of resetting.”
While the neck injured certainly played a large role in last season’s struggles, Johnson said that coming back down the stretch to a team that was dead in the water wasn’t an easy situation.
“I think that last year was kind of a whirlwind with everything going on and then getting hurt and then coming back and having the season we were having … last year was, honestly, right from the get-go, kind of a messed up year.”
Like everyone else that we’ve spoken to the past two weeks, Johnson is loving the vibes in the Blackhawks dressing room through the first two weeks of training camp.
“I think that everyone that was there last year that’s here now, kind of, everyone’s just refreshed. There’s a lot more smiles, and guys are a lot happier than even what they were at the start of last year. It’s kind of a whole different dynamic right now, and I think it’s really good.”
I asked Johnson what similarities Luke Richardson’s system shares with the ones he played in while in Tampa Bay, given that Richardson uses Tampa Bay and Colorado film as a teaching aide here in camp. Johnson said that he sees some similarities to some of the things they did in Tampa Bay and sees some skill traits on this year’s roster that resemble the makeup of the teams he played on in Tampa Bay.
“I think that probably the biggest thing that he’s been kind of preaching that would be the same as in Tampa is our gaps. You know, last year, the D would sneak back a little bit too much and kind of allow guys to get into the zone, but we’re all about pressure, and I like that. I think that our entire team can skate; our D are very mobile, just like how Tampa is. I think that benefitted us a lot down there. We’ve been doing a lot of that, D-zone is a little bit more on the Colorado side of things, but there’s a reason that those two teams were in the Finals, and they’re both very good teams to try to emulate.”
Coming off of his first full and healthy offseason in years, Johnson is feeling great mentally and physically and ready to have a bounce-back season for the Blackhawks. He said his offseason was exactly what he needed: getting back on track and feeling good physically and mentally.
With the Blackhawks having limited options up front this season, any increased production from Johnson would be a huge plus. And he looks and feels ready to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him.