Two years and one week ago, Tyler Johnson ’s mind was on two WHL scoring titles and helping his hometown Spokane Chiefs increase its win totals.
The undrafted, undersized sniper had no clear track for his hockey career when the Tampa Bay Lightning came calling and signed the free agent to a three-year entry-level contract.
His race to the NHL was now set, but how quickly he’d break through the ribbon was up to him.
He immediately rewarded the Lightning by finishing tops in the WHL in goals with 53 in 2011, and was just one point shy of being its top scorer with 115 points in 71 games.
The following year – his first year pro – Johnson made Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman look like a genius when the Washington state native scored 31 goals and 68 points and was an integral part of a championship Norfolk Admirals team that went down as one of the best in AHL history.
Now the AHL’s active leader in points with 58 (32 goals) in 59 games for Syracuse, Johnson – just two years removed from having no clear hockey career path – is raising his arms to break that race ribbon.
The former World Junior star and AHL All-Star is headed for the NHL.
The 22-year-old was called up by the Lightning early Thursday when Bolts captain Vincent Lecavalier  was placed on injured reserve.
What to expect:
As we say on Twitter, Tyler Johnson is good at the hockey.
He’s the type of player who is “at home” on the ice and makes it refreshingly obvious he loves the game. While his measurable may not be where scouts would like them, the 5-9 forward just keeps producing wherever he plays. In sports, when a player produces who “shouldn’t,” he or she is just called “A [hockey] player.”
Aside from his short stature, the first thing fans will notice about Johnson is his speed. He’s among the fastest – if not the fastest – players in the Lightning system.
Johnson overcomes his lack of size with smart play and the ability to deftly dart in and out of spaces to set himself up for a shot or find passing lanes.
Johnson is an adept playmaker but is more known for his accurate, right-handed shot. He has a quick release to his wrist shot and has a heavy slapper – he is usually found in the Stamkos Circle on the Crunch’s top power play unit. His shot, combined with being able to find spaces to unleash it, makes him a dangerous offensive player.
With all the offense he produces, coaches may point to Johnson’s defensive abilities as being his best traits. Johnson is a fixture on the Syracuse penalty kill, where he is always a threat to utilize his speed to accumulate shorthanded points. He’s resilient on faceoffs and uses his lack of size to his advantage, getting low on draws to get extra leverage against taller opponents.
Johnson is defensively responsible like all Jon Cooper students so Lightning coach Guy Boucher should have no problems trusting the youngster.
His challenge will come in traffic and especially in wall battles. He has good lower body strength like Martin St. Louis  or Cory Conacher , but his frame isn’t as wide. Johnson has been able to survive thus far against blueline redwoods by using his quickness and intelligence.
It’s a given that Johnson is on the ice during 6-on-5 situations when his team is in desperate need of a goal, but what makes him special is he’s also on for 5-on-6’s, taking the defensive zone draw and marking the other club’s best players in the closing seconds of a victory.
Depending on how well Johnson can adjust physically to the NHL (bulk, not height), he has all the makings of a valuable No. 2 center on a good club. He’s the kind of player that may not get superstar headlines, but would be in the Conn Smythe conversation at the end of the playoffs.
He is expected to challenge for a permanent position with the Lightning next fall, which will be the third year of that entry-level contract he signed as a free agent in Spokane almost exactly two years ago.
One thing is for sure: Tyler Johnson will always be good at the hockey.