Stephen Johns picked up his 11th point of the season with a goal against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. It was a slapshot - no, actually it was a clap-bomb, I-can-dunk-on-LeBron, exclamation point on what is rapidly becoming a breakout season for the 25-year-old defender. Coincidentally, that point has put Johns into the bonus. For the rest of the season, every point he scores will represent a new career high. Pretty neat, right? Johns’ emergence becomes all the more fun when we step into the Way Back Machine and relive the mess that was last season.
It’s been an odd progression for Johns. Acquired as part of the Patrick Sharp trade, Stars’ fans were first introduced to the burly defender in 2015-2016. That season, Johns followed up a 14-game regular season cameo with a strong 13-game playoff run. It wasn’t a points thing. Johns managed three during the regular season (one goal and two assists) and did not add to the total once the tournament began. It had more to do with a blend of physicality (96 hits in 27 games), and for lack of a better word, daring-do along the backline.
Johns didn’t have John Kilngberg’s silk. It was never smooth, but that was kind of the point. Johns was ungainly, but willing to take the chance; whether that chance came in the form of a stretch pass coming out of the defensive zone, an aggressive rush up the ice, or a crushing hit. Speculation on what would happen when Johns “put it all together” became something of a cottage industry among Stars fans. It was inevitable, right? A hero had been born.
Only, not so much.
The 2016-2017 season pumped the brakes on a lot of things in Stars-land, and Stephen Johns was no exception. That season, he managed just 61 games thanks to time in the AHL and several stints in the press box. It was weird, according to the numbers, as Johns actually had a reasonably productive year. When in the lineup, he played an average of 18:15 minutes and scored 10 points (four goals and six assists). In that time, he was a positive possession player (51.4 CF% EV and 53.1 FF% EV) and even positive relative to his teammates (1.2 CF%-rel and 3.3 FF%-rel). Honestly, though, did it feel like progress?
Enter Ken Hitchcock, and all of the sudden Johns appears to have found his niche this season. From the Department of Don’t Look Now, the Dallas Stars currently surrender the fifth fewest goals per game in the NHL (2.56), and have the 10th best penalty kill (82.2%). Johns, who averages 2:15 minutes on the PK each game, is a huge part of that. Oh by the way, he’s also switched to his off side to get Julius Honka into the lineup. That alone should be worth an ice rink full of goodwill amongst Stars fans. Right now, it feels as if he’s not getting the press of Klingberg-for-Norris, Esa Lindell’s emergence as a defensive rock, or the Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis bromance, but maybe he should.
Barring some major catastrophe (knock on wood), Johns will surpass his previous career high for games played. It is also likely that he’ll play a significant role for the Stars come playoff time. Twelve months ago, that might have produced angst, but no longer. Right now, it seems far more likely Johns will step up when the stakes rise. Whether it comes in the form of a critical kill, a massive hit, or a well-timed rush, Johns has more than earned the confidence of Stars fans and his spot in a crowded defensive lineup.