Stephen Johns Loaned to Texas on Conditioning Assignment, Will Play Meaningful Hockey Again

This is huge for the player, and potentially huge for the team

After a year and a half trying to get back to the ice with an uncertain prognosis, Stephen Johns is officially ready to play hockey games again.

After increasing speculation as Johns continued practicing with the team, the Dallas Stars finally announced his temporary assignment to Cedar Park for a conditioning stint on Wednesday morning:

On Monday, Sean Shapiro estimated that whenever Johns was ready for such a stint, it would likely be for something like four or five games. Of course, there’s no way to be sure how game action will affect Johns after taking a year and a half to recover from post-traumatic headache disorder, but I’d say it’s probably safe to stick with that range until Johns takes some hits in real time and we get a better sense for how his body reacts. The last thing the Stars are going to do at this point is rush him back.

Johns has been practicing with the team since December, and he occasionally skated by himself before that. Out of respect for Johns, most of his recovery process has been kept private. However, a conditioning assignment was always seen as the final sort of step that would be taken before Johns could be deemed NHL-ready again.

It’s important to keep on-ice expectations reasonable, of course. Johns was a revelation when he showed up down the stretch in 2016 after coming over the prior summer in the Patrick Sharp trade. A large, slick-skating, right-handed defenseman is the sort of premium asset every team either craves or jealously guards, and his arrival really was a big deal, just as his absence has continued to be. But it’s certainly not fair to Johns or anyone else to expect him to just pick up where he left off, even after a conditioning assignment. There will be an adjustment period.

It’s getting ahead of ourselves, but if all goes well, one can assume the right-handed Johns would be an ideal partner (eventually) for Miro Heiskanen, as well as a valuable penalty-kill player, which the coaches would likely need him to be if he took Roman Polák or Andrej Sekera’s spot in the lineup. But I would expect the Stars to ease him into more of a Jamie Oleksiak role at first, keeping his ice time in the more sheltered 5v5 range until he really looks like he’s back in the swing of things. But again, that’s still a relatively long ways off, for now.

And keep in mind, Johns will be joining a very different team than the one he last played with in 2017-18, with at least three of his five potential defense partners being new faces. There’s also going to be a physical adjustment, as even the most arduous practice routines never really condition you the way consistent game action does. So while Johns is probably itching to get going, it will be prudent for everyone to take things one step at a time in getting him back into the lineup, assuming the conditioning assignment goes well. And it’s fair to say that’s still a decently sized “if,” considering how demanding professional hockey is.

On an infinitely larger level, of course, you have to be thrilled for Stephen Johns, the human being. Suffering from sporadic headaches that can be every bit as bad as migraines for as long as he did would be miserable for anyone to cope with on a daily basis, let alone someone whose livelihood demands the level of physicality that professional hockey does. Being isolated from a team is a really difficult experience for athletes even when the injury isn’t excruciating to the extent that these headaches can be. Just being symptom-free enough to be able to try playing pro hockey again means Johns isn’t suffering off the ice to anywhere near that extent anymore, and that’s something worth much rejoicing indeed—no matter what the hockey part looks like at first.

Here’s the official release:

FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill announced today that the club has loaned defenseman Stephen Johns to the Texas Stars, Dallas’ top development affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL), on a conditioning assignment.

Johns, 27, missed the entire 2018-19 season and has yet to play in 2019-20 due to post-traumatic headaches. The defenseman registered 15 points (8-7=15) in 75 regular-season games with Dallas in 2017-18 and has posted 28 points (13-15=28) in 150 career regular-season NHL games, all in a Stars sweater. Johns has also appeared in 13 career postseason games, earning 41 hits and 10 blocked shots during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound native of Ellwood City, Pa. was originally selected by Chicago in the second round (60th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft and was acquired by Dallas via trade along with forward Patrick Sharp in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt on July 12, 2015.