It’s been a long time coming. Approximately 20-plus months, in fact, since Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns played in a meaningful hockey game.
That’s when he left the ice to deal with post-concussion headaches. There would be days where he was in perfect health, and other days where he couldn’t be on the ice. It is a result of a concussion sustained at the end of the 2018 season. Without any specific timetable of when the post-traumatic headaches would subside, Johns had to use the one thing most athletes don’t typically like: rest.
After missing the entire season last year, the defenseman was put on the injured list on the very first day of training camp this season. When addressing the assembled media to open camp, general manager Jim Nill said that the team would not answer any questions pertaining to Johns and his status, with an update coming only when there was one worth discussing.
He’d been on the ice more consistently throughout the fall and even moreso as the season has worn on, taking practices and morning skates with the NHL club. Not long after the Winter Classic, the team announced that Johns would be sent to the AHL Texas Stars for a conditioning assignment. It’s the first sign that Johns is potentially ready to return to hockey, as they’re limited in how long he can spend with Texas.
The typical conditioning assignment spans six days or three games, whichever comes later. With Johns being sent down on Wednesday this week, that should have put Johns in a back-to-back set against the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) Friday and Saturday night and then a home contest against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins).
Due to a scary medical emergency involving a Toronto assistant coach just prior to the game Friday night, that game was cancelled. The Marlies forfeited the contest. (In the AHL, travel costs are expensive, and the eastern conference team likely isn’t coming back to Texas, making a make-up game much harder to try to schedule). The Dallas Stars will try to get clarification as to whether that game counts against Johns’ conditioning assignment. I would imagine it would not and that the spirit of the rule would come into play, extending Johns’ stint with Texas through next Friday when the team takes on the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins once again.
Whenever his initial conditioning assignment is up, the Dallas Stars could appeal to get him two additional games. Because of his long time off due to a medical issue, it’s very likely the NHL would approve that. In other words, hold off on getting too excited about seeing Johns with the Dallas Stars in the next week or two.
Though, based on how Landon Bow described Johns tonight, it’ll be interesting to see how long he actually spends in Texas Stars. “Yeah, from the moment he stepped on the ice, he didn’t belong here,” the goaltender said.
“You know what? For a guy that’s been off for, I don’t know, what did he say, 18? 20 months? or whatever – he just killed it out there,” Bow continued. “He couldn’t make a bad play. He was throwing guys around, he was shooting the puck hard. You couldn’t tell that that guy’s had any time off at all.”
His assessment was fairly spot on. Johns looked a step above nearly everyone on the ice, a promising sign for the player on the ice. “I thought he played well. Obviously, he was a good boost for us and I didn’t think there was a lot of rust to his game,” head coach Neil Graham said after the game. “He had a big night and was a big contributor for us in securing the two points.”
The real key will be how his body responds to the physical play from tonight, something that we won’t know right away. But for a game that’s been years in the making now, and one that some questioned would ever come again, the play on the ice is very encouraging to see.
“I think everyone in that room is over the moon for that guy,” Bow said.
Here’s some stream-of-conscious thoughts throughout the Texas Stars game tonight. Note, I was keyed in on Johns and how he performed, so it’s basically all about him.
Decent ice time, skating very fast to start the game
Registered first power play assist
Johns with good skating and positioning in all three zones
Letting the one-timer bombs absolutely rip
Played on the penalty kill
Threw a hit against Garrett Wilson, then tripped Kenny Agostino in the corner trying to line up for a second hit - to the penalty box
Second penalty kill featured two blocked shots, a clearing rim-around shot to accommodate the line change, was on the ice for more than a minute of the PK
Second power play featured Johns with a bomb from inside the blueline on an unassisted goal to give the Stars a 2-1 lead; goalie sat on ice stunned after; result of a bad clearing attempt by Toronto
Johns appeared to be more physical this period compared to the first
Johns with big hit on Scott Pooley behind the net, causing a big roar from the crowd on the clean hit
Johns out on the kill again, scored on this time; appeared to be miscommunication on defensive coverage off the faceoff draw
More Johns one-timer bombs
Johns on the penalty kill again, had his guy covered but it was a quick bang-bang play to tip the puck past Bow
Jason Robertson tied the game with a huge individual effort on neutral zone turnover
Johns calls for puck, shoots an absolute bomb that’s hard for Kaskisuo to handle, and Tye Felhaber in good position to collect and pot home the rebound
Johns was out on the ice with goalie pulled to protect the one goal lead, made a smart, short outlet pass when being pressured against the boards that Michael Mersch put into the empty net
Johns’ last shift of the game was over a minute long
Final stats line: one goal, three assists, four points in roughly 20 minutes of ice time and seven shots on goal