As Kings defenseman Jack Johnson continues to emerge as a leader of one of the NHL's most promising young teams, he appears destined to be known for more than the name he shares with a soft-rock icon. Through Sunday, Johnson led L.A. (ninth in the ultratough Western Conference at 13-9-0) in ice time (at 24:35 per game), and his 15 points is tied for 10th best in the league among defensemen.
"I saw tremendous growth last year," Los Angeles coach Terry Murray says. "When he was chosen to play at the Olympics, there was a real high-energy guy who did a really great job against world-class hockey players. When he came back, he brought the same type of play. It showed me the potential of who Jack Johnson is going to be someday."
That someday is now. Johnson, 23, is not only the best young American defenseman in the NHL, but he's also one of the primary reasons the Kings have given up just 55 goals, tied for fifth fewest in the NHL. The 6'1", 225-pound native of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has always delivered punishing hits, and his offensive skills have made him a mainstay for Murray in shootouts. His defensive play, though, has grown dramatically this season. When Drew Doughty, the Kings' 20-year-old Norris Trophy favorite, missed six games with a concussion in October, Johnson logged huge minutes and helped L.A. to the top of the Pacific Division. Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi calls him the team's most improved player. "He can come back to the bench after a real hard shift, and if you look at him 25 seconds later, he's ready to go again," Murray says. "He's got incredible recovery abilities."
It's no surprise then that Johnson was the only member of the U.S. Olympic team to also play in last summer's world championships in Germany. Says Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke, who filled the same role for Team USA, "He's a guy that does just about everything a defenseman needs to do well. And he does it with intensity, and he's mean."
There are still holes in his game that need to be spackled. In the past Johnson has been criticized for taking too many chances with the puck, a habit which led to turnovers and scoring opportunities for opponents. That criticism has resurfaced during a recent slump in which L.A. lost six of seven games. During that span Johnson was -11, a fact Murray—who believes that championships are won from the goal crease out—attributes more to the 2.29 goals a game his offense has averaged during that stretch. "It's a process that all these young guys are going through," he says of his green corps of blueliners (average age: 24.8). "They're making the right strides. Jack's improving right on course, and I don't know what the top end is going to be.... But he is going to be a top player."
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BILL WIPPERT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (JOHNSON)
MORE THAN JUST A NAME Johnson has carved his own identity with his mean streak and breakout play at the Vancouver Olympics last February.