Dallas Stars Season Grades: Stephen Johns

Allowed to play through his mistakes, Johns seems to have turned a corner.

Stephen Johns just turned 26 on April 18th, which means two things: Johns was the fourth-oldest member of the Stars’ defense corps this season, behind Dan Hamhuis, Marc Methot and Greg Pateryn; it also means that, assuming the UFAs walk, Johns will be the second-oldest defenseman on the team next season. So as much as we’ve been trained to talk about the Stars’ “young defensemen,” Johns is rapidly exiting that territory.

That said, this was only his third season in the NHL, having gone to college and all. Johns is not a prospect by any means, but we also can’t say we know for good exactly what sort of player he is, and is going, to be.

Stephen Johns scored eight goals this season, putting him in an unlikely tie with both John Klingberg and Jason Spezza. Johns got some time on the second power play, but all 14 of his points came at evens, displaying both how inept the Stars’ second unit was this season and how impressive Johns’s eight goals were. He was largely playing with the Stars’ lower lines, and yet he still found ways to do stuff like this:

(Pardon the quality, but NHL.com’s byzantine website kept choking on its own video, so here we are.)

Johns played 75 games this season, building solidly on the 61 starts he got in the lost season of 2016-17. However, there are a couple of things to consider when comparing those two years. It’s sobering to remember that Johns’s average ice time actually decreased this year; his 17:33 was his lowest average ice time of his three seasons in Dallas. In addition, despite more regular usage, Johns still was far and away a third-pairing defender for Dallas all season, particularly in its later stages.

In a year filled with debate about the usage of Julius Honka, Stephen Johns might have been the one more worthy of attention. As the year went on, Johns was given a bit longer leash by Ken Hitchcock—that video above certainly doesn’t happen with a defender who is told to sit back at the blue line—and Johns made the most of it in a lot of ways. Still, he was never really a threat to get the big minutes Hitch gave to Pateryn and Hamhuis on the second pairing, and you can see how Honka’s presence correlated to less ice time for Johns. Mike Babcock loves him some Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak in Toronto, and Ken Hitchock loved him some Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn in Dallas. Coaches love big, reliable players, which is to say players who can be relied upon to play a certain way, the effectiveness of said style notwithstanding.

Regardless of their discrete natures, 75 games amounted to a solid season for Johns, who had trouble earning Lindy Ruff’s blessing last season when lineups were being written out. Johns had a rough year in 2016-17 (and who didn’t?), but his quote from this Sean Shapiro story back in January ‘18 is pretty revealing. If Hitch and Rick Wilson really did give Johns that level of assurance, it’s little wonder he felt confident enough to make plays like that one above, stepping up on Nino Nieddereiter above the blue line to create a goal back the other way.

“When you allow mistakes to happen, less mistakes happen,” Johns said.  “You don’t worry about making mistakes, and when you make a mistake  you’re not worried about going to the bench and having (a coach)  screaming and hollering at you, he’s just letting you know what you need  to do better. When you’re allowed to make mistakes you have a different  feeling, where you just have that feeling you can make plays.”

You can shake your head at the factors that keep conspiring to prevent Dallas from seriously deploying the Klingberg/Johns/Honka right side that seems so clearly optimal. You can, in fact, shake your fist at the heavens for how two straight seasons without playoff hockey have still not borne the “let the guys play through their mistakes” fruit one would expect, in a vacuum, of all of the Stars’ defenders.

But Johns didn’t play in a vacuum. The season was a roller coaster ride that did go both up and down, and as things got tight late in the year, the coaches leaned heavily on their most trusted guys, only to see the team (though not all of said top guys) crack under the pressure. Regardless of usage, Johns had his best season so far; the question is, how good was it?

After starting out the year with Dan Hamhuis for a bit, Johns played most of his minutes with Marc Methot, Julius Honka, or Jamie Oleksiak. That’s quite a wide ranger of defenders, and with Johns also playing on his off side next to Honka, it’s perhaps understandable that his shot rates were nothing to write home about, better than only Oleksiak, Methot and Dillon Heatherington (albeit by a decent margin in all three cases) among defenders.

Johns also had the worst relative xGF% on the blue line, if you care about applying those metrics to defenders. Certainly you might not see the upside in playing Pateryn in a shutdown role over Johns long-term, but it’s not like Johns was the absolute black hole of hockey events that Hamhuis and Pateryn were, either. Things happened with Johns on the ice, and sometimes those things were bad. Johns’s coverage was still a tad loose here and there, and he doesn’t have quite the elite passing vision of Honka or Klingberg, which led to a bad giveaway on occasion.

Johns also had the weakest quality of teammate on the team in terms of ice time, which is to say simply that he was a third-pairing defender on a Ken Hitchcock team. The bulk of the defense minutes went to the top four, just as a disproportionate bulk of the forward minutes went to the top three. It’s a tactic, certainly; but it might have had something to do with other defenders getting worn out as the season wore on.

Again, you can point to how Johns didn’t out-and-out force the coaching staff to give him better minutes, but was that ever going to happen to begin with? The coaching staff began the year with literally Jamie Oleksiak and Marc Methot on the second pairing in front of Johns and Hamhuis, so it’s not a stretch to say they didn’t see Johns to be worthy of the shutdown role envisioned for the second pairing from day one. Labeling players for certain pieces of your system is how you get Greg Pateryn immediately stepping past Johns on the depth chart despite being scratched for nine games; Johns did a lot in his role, saving a few goals as well as scoring them, but it’s tough to say whether he could ever have done enough to really change the coaches’ minds about him radically enough to get moved up the depth chart.

In any case, Stephen Johns continued to grow, his leash did get longer (at least in terms of creativity if not ice time), and he’s also an RFA this summer, which means he’ll be getting a new deal, almost certainly from Dallas. Johns is the sort of player every NHL team likes to have: a big guy with a hard shot who can skate. That Johns has still not been fully unleashed on the league is partially because of his two full seasons under coaches who were coaching like there was no tomorrow (which there wasn’t, as it turned out, for them). Whether he turns into an all-out beast who can consistently eat tough minutes on the second pairing behind John Klingberg is yet to be really seen for a whole year, but that year may come as soon as next season, which seems about time.

Grade Stephen Johns’s 2017-18 season

A - Fantastic year, and he deserves everything they can throw at him69
B - He did everything asked of him while fighting through some more growing pains342
C - He was good in a sheltered role but didn’t really prove the coaches should trust him more51
D - He’s not carving out a role for himself, and he’s getting too old to hope for improvement. Might be time to go full Brenden Dillon and shop him.6
F - just no good, can we trade him back to chicago for daley and garbutt 3