I’m often asked why I love sports so much. It’s simple. Meritocracy. Your spot on the team is based on merit. A player earns it by what they do in games, in practice, and in the locker room. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the NHL. Based on his recent performances on the ice, the time has come for Tyler Johnson to grab some bench. While simple in definition, a meritocracy can sometimes be difficult for some front offices and coaches to exercise.
As the 2015 Stanley Cup Final began, there was one player in the lead for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It was Johnson who came into that Final with more goals than anyone. He was en fuego. Carrying the Lightning through the first three playoff rounds. That was the year of The Triplets.
Johnson centered the line with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov on the wings. They were young, fast, highly-skilled, and were magic to watch. Their performance that season helped fans in these parts believe in this team. All three were in their second NHL season. Hell, Johnson and Palat were two of the three Calder Trophy finalists the year before. Six years later, the time to bench Johnson has arrived.
Nobody then would have believed a few years later the promise of that season, of that player would vanish so hastily. Compared to his Triplet line mates, Johnson has failed to keep pace. The trajectory of his career is descending so much that he appears to be a shell of his 2015 self. Kucherov is an established superstar in the league. Palat is one of the league’s best 200-foot players. Johnson, well… doesn’t fit either category.
On some level, I’m convinced the Lightning front office knows this. Otherwise, why would Johnson have been placed on waivers twice this season? Understand that placing Johnson on waivers meant the team made the decision that they could live with another team claiming him with no return compensation whatsoever. The catch for any team claiming a player off the waiver wire is they take on the player’s contract. There is the albatross. Johnson currently has a $5 million dollar cap hit through the 2023-24 season.
Johnson wasn’t claimed by any team – TWICE. I find it incredulous that all other 30 teams believed their rosters of forwards better than Johnson. That’s just not true. The issue is that there are five million reasons why he wasn’t snatched up. Give credit to Lightning GM Julien Brisebois. He clearly knows Johnson’s cap hit and performance are incongruent. So, the front office knows that it would be better for the organization to lose Johnson with nothing in return than to keep him.
Cooper’s Blind Spot
After the loss Saturday night in his postgame interview, Coach Jon Cooper was asked about Johnson. Specifically, if it is tougher that a veteran who has done so many good things, makes a mistake in those situations. Talking about the goal scored when Johnson missed his check and allowed the opposition to waltz in unimpeded in a high-danger zone. By any stretch, Cooper took a defensive tone, sharply saying “We’re a team”.
With that he went on to say: “you can’t single out one guy.” What? Ask Blake Coleman, Brayden Point and Kucherov among others whether Cooper has in the past singled out one guy. They know because they were in fact singled out and had to sit a game as Cooper singled them out for one infraction or another.
On Monday, Cooper finally met with Johnson and came out of that meeting saying, “I trust him as a player.” Cooper went on to say that, “He’s had way more ups than downs.” This is true. It is also true that like the 2015 playoff run, a lot of those ups were more than a half decade ago. That is what could be at the core of this blind spot. It could be loyalty and if so, the loyalty Cooper is showing in Johnson right now is not warranted.
Cooper was brought into the Lightning organization to coach their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals in 2010. None of the players Cooper coached in that first Norfolk season are still with the Lightning. But what a second season Cooper and the Admirals had in 2011-12. They won the Calder Cup, the AHL equivalent to the Stanley Cup. Guess who was one of the stalwarts of that championship team?
When Your Game Merits You To Grab Some Bench
Johnson, Palat and Alex Killorn were all on that Calder Cup-winning team who are still being coached by Cooper. Of the three, Johnson was the most productive then and was an integral reason for the Calder Cup. I have no issue with Cooper showing these guys and other veterans loyalty. Cooper wouldn’t be the person or coach I think he is if he didn’t have this trait. But there is more to this, so much more.
In his first two full seasons with the Lightning, Johnson averaged 27 goals 34 assists for 61 points. In the six seasons since, Johnson hasn’t had a single season of more than 50 points, including two seasons with less than 40 points. During that time, he has not eclipsed more than 30 assists and has been under 20 each of the last two seasons. He’s also only had one season of 29 goals and averaging 17 goals in the other seasons.
Circling back to the meritocracy theme. Johnson’s play this year didn’t merit him being on the second line. Ross Colton has recently supplanted him on that line. C’mon, it’s a no brainer as Colton has eight goals in 18 games this season. Johnson has seven goals in 47 games. Johnson has also been part of the 2nd power play unit all season. So, with top-six minutes and power play ice time, Johnson simply didn’t get the job done. With his red hot performance, Colton merited his promotion to the second line. He’s also earned time on the power play to replace Johnson, but that call is still in the aforementioned blind spot.
Future is Now
Many fans speculate that Johnson will be left unprotected in this summer’s expansion draft. They think “He’s from Seattle.” Wrong, he is from Spokane. Saying he’s from Seattle is like saying a kid who grows up playing hockey in Tampa thinks playing in Sunrise is going home. It all comes back to the meritocracy. The NHL is my favorite sport because teams my whole life believe in this. Don’t believe me?
The only two players who have their numbers retired by the Lightning, did NOT finish their careers here. Rarely is there a “farewell tour” for an aging hockey player like in the NBA and MLB. The NHL has the toughest trophy to win in all of sports. Many in the Lightning organization know that now because of last season. The Stanley Cup and how tough it is to win is the reason teams operate in a meritorious fashion.
Johnson is the personification of merit. He was undrafted by every NHL team yet through sheer will and determination not only made the NHL but was a Calder Trophy finalist his rookie year. The issue now is that either others on the roster have surpassed his abilities or Johnson has lost the will and/or ability to compete at this level.
If they want to win, the Lightning know what they have to do. It isn’t always going to be popular with the fan base or the players. But GMs and coaches have to do whatever they must to give their boys every chance to win. Even if it means one of your longest tenured players must sit. Blind spot be damned.
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