Stephen Johns spent his Thanksgiving in Austin this year. Due to a stretch of uneven play at the NHL level, the Dallas Stars decided the hard-hitting defender would benefit from an AHL sojourn.
It’s easy to see the reasoning. Two games in two nights would be an excellent way to recalibrate for the big club’s post-holiday push. The logistics were also perfect. The Texas Stars were in the midst of a home-and-home against the San Antonio Rampage, which meant Johns only needed to take a short hop down I-35 to avoid a third consecutive healthy scratch.
To say the young Star made an impact would be something of an understatement. In three games Johns took five shots, and scored three goals including one on the power play, a second short handed, and a pair of game-winners (one in overtime). The Stars won both games, including a shutout on Saturday, which I had the pleasure to catch live.
Johns’ play was an interesting contrast to the typical “Player X sent to minors” narrative. I had expected to see a restrained, deliberate version of the 24-year old blueliner in Cedar Park, especially given comments by Coach Lindy Ruff about the quality of Johns’ decision-making. Guy gets put on blast, guy plays a couple of low-risk, no-mistake AHL games, guy resumes his NHL career. No muss, no fuss. Only that’s not what Stars fans got.
Sample sizes can be tricky sometimes, but in Johns’ case, a return of three goals very accurately reflects the quality of his play over the weekend. Saturday’s tally was straight out of the “How to Power Play” textbook. Johns, playing along the blueline, saw space, took the space, and absolutely dropped the hammer.
The goal was a calculated risk. A bad pass off the wall could have led to an easy Rampage exit (or worse), but it didn’t. Even a decent pass would have, at least, led to sustained pressure. Instead, Johns got a good pass, and the Stars got a lead they would not relinquish.
It was indicative of his play throughout the game. In possession, Johns exhibited a borderline arrogance with the puck. I meant that as a compliment, by the way. Johns consistently used his size, reach, and skating ability to push the pack past the Rampage forecheck. On the breakout, Johns looked like a quarterback going through his progression, kept his eyes up-ice, and did not seem afraid to try for a breakaway pass. Physically, he did enough damage for the Rampage to try and goad him into a fight, but kept a cool enough head to avoid pointless AHL fisticuffs.
Yes, there were mistakes, but they were reasonable ones. I came away impressed at how Johns used his time. Rather than play it safe, he worked to refine the same dynamism that has made him valuable at the NHL level. As good as he’s been (in stretches) for the Dallas Stars, Saturday night was a reminder that there’s still more to come from the young defender.