Stephen Johns: Dallas Stars May Have Something
The big man is crazy talented.
When the Dallas Stars traded for Patrick Sharp they got more than just Sharp. In exchange for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt the Stars also picked up young defenseman Stephen Johns. The 23 year old 6'4 234 pound defenseman adds even more young depth to a group of blueliners hat already includes Jason Demers, John Klingberg, Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, and Mattias Backman among others.
How does he fit in? According to Hockeys Future, this is what we can expect from his game:
Johns is a big stay-at-home defenseman with good character. Johns' best asset is his ability to dole out punishment through the physical game, though he does lose defensive positioning at times looking for the big hit. Though he may not project as much of a scorer at the pro level, Johns can deliver hard, accurate passes on the breakout and is not shy about taking shots from the blue line to get the puck to the front of the net.
McKeen's had this to say about him in September of last year:
Large and well put together, Johns played in all situations and displayed the confidence to make plays .. actively jumped into the rush, albeit with little design or purpose with the puck .. gambled at the line looking for a better play rather than take the simple one .. tried to do too much and left himself exposed and often caught up ice .. defensively, he lost positioning and was constantly on the wrong side of the puck .. possesses decent feet and has a strong lower trunk that propels him up ice .. appears to lack some upper-body agility which may be related to carrying too much weight .. did manage to play an assertive defensive game however, as he protected his crease valiantly and pushed players to the outside .. there's a good physical foundation to work with here, but he needs to curb his enthusiasm and understand that less is best.
There are a lot of similarities in these two reports, but the "stay-at-home" defenseman label is applied to him by Hockey's Future. The description by McKeen's sounds like anything but stay-at-home. They make him sound like a guy who likes to push the play up the ice, and sometimes too creatively (and sometimes with no idea at all about what he's doing) which causes defensive problems. His defensive ability appears to be his calling card, though at .41 points per game in his first AHL season he was hardly an offensive black hole.
Fortunately AHL games can be purchased online these days. We can verify with our own eyes what these reports tell us if we're willing to take the time to do it. It's been said that he grew as a player as the season wore on, playing particularly well in the playoffs. Randomly selecting a game I ended up starting with May 6th, the first game the Rockford IceHogs played in the second round against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
There is value in seeing the whole season of play, and I will probably go back and look at some early season games. With that being said, the Stars didn't trade for Stephen Johns of October. They traded for the player he is now. The player he showed himself to be in this game is phenomenal, and the stay-at-home isn't appropriate for him. This is a good all around player who can skate well, distribute the puck, make smart decisions with the puck, play physically, and protect the slot.
It's entirely possible I stumbled into the best game he has played as a professional. Johns scored a goal and assisted on another. The assist came off a point shot of his that got deflected. He took four shots, one off the lead for the game for the IceHogs. He played on the top penalty killing and powerplay units. Teemu Pulkkinen of the Griffins scored a hat trick, and Johns was still the best player on the ice for my money.
What I think about him doesn't matter though. See for yourself. I pulled about 20 gifs from the game to show what kind of player he is. Every one of these is from the exact same game.
We'll start with the bad to get them out of the way and prove part of the scouting reports right. Johns can, at times, try to do too much with the puck. This only really happened two different times, and considering how often he had the puck it's a bit remarkable. Johns has the puck and tries to clear it between two forecheckers:
In another instance, Johns misplayed the puck twice in his own end, but he recovers well. He ends up drilling a Griffin presumably as punishment for touching his puck:
The only other situation that worked out poorly with Johns on the ice saw him get caught up ice flat-footed on the penalty kill. He stopped skating and the attacking winger blew by him:
That's going to cause some problems at the NHL level. One thing we can definitely see is that he attempts to close gaps quickly, even if this play didn't work out particularly well.
Johns is known for his defensive play. In this gif you can see how well he uses his stick. He breaks up a premium scoring chance by being strong on his stick in tight:
Late in the game Grand Rapids was pushing for an empty net goal. Johns and a forechecker battled for the puck. Johns stayed with his man and the puck came loose, but with no support a goal ended up getting put on the board despite his awesome work:
He likes to hit people too. Early in the season he may have given up positioning to go for a hit, but it didn't happen in this game. I don't know if that's just this game or not, but he was able to lay out some legitimate in the flow of the game hits. This first one happened as he tried to prevent a goal by crushing the guy his defense partner should have been covering:
The goal still scored, but Johns made it look like he was playing against 14 year olds. He appears to be incredibly strong. Another example shows him just using his arms to fling a forechecker into the boards:
Johns shows the ability to move the puck from his own end. This is the part of his game that really surprised me, and we're about to start seeing why the stay-at-home label simply isn't appropriate for him if this game is any indication. We saw the turnover earlier on the ill-advised outlet play, but he makes more good outlets than bad:
Johns doesn't only look to pass the puck. He often skated the puck out of the zone to create offense at the other end at even strength and on the power play. He got involved so much that the stay-at-home label quickly becomes a poor fit:
Here you see Johns puck-jacking a helpless forward at his own line before taking off to create a chance:
Man he accelerated fast for a big guy. His skating ability was on display in this next gif too. Johns was in deep, skated back in a passing lane to breakup the rush, and finally took the puck back in to create his own chance:
He was all over the powerplay too. Here you see him skating the puck all the way up the ice, dumping the puck in on three defenders, and skating all the way around the offensive zone before ending up with the puck on his stick at the point:
Fear is not in his vocabulary. Johns appear to be excellent at the offensive blueline. These next two gifs are two different plays on the powerplay where he abuses a defender with a deft move to generate a shot:
This may actually be the same penalty killer, but as you can see in what happens after the move it is definitely a different play:
Late in the game at even strength as the Griffins are trying to close the game out they tried to dump the puck out past Johns. Nope. He barely even flinches:
This pass on the powerplay shocked me too. This pass is tape to tape from blueline to goalline through traffic while under pressure. It's an incredibly impressive play:
Goals happened. This is the one ultimately credited to the forward in front off of his point shot. Are you getting the point yet that he likes to shoot? Because he likes to shoot:
The final two gifs are of the goal he scored. Johns trails the play and picks up the puck in the circle and absolutely snipes this goal. He just straight up beat the goaltender:
The replay shows how badly he beat the goalie. He rang this in off the elbow it was so perfectly placed.
Watching these gifs makes you wonder how he didn't score literally all of the points this season. The Griffins announcers were as flabbergasted as you probably are. There is some serious offensive upside in that package. The McKeen's report does mention that nothing happens with the puck after he gets it, but that isn't the case here. It usually isn't exotic, but that puck is getting to the net come hell or high water.
If Stephen Johns didn't break his arm he would have made his NHL debut during the Stanley Cup run the Blackhawks went on. If he had made his debut he would have a ring and he probably wouldn't be a Dallas Star. I can't speak for what his low end looks like, but at his best Johns is a legitimate player.
I can't say enough about how great this performance was, but I can't stress enough that this is just one game. This is clearly the high end of his game, but reports indicate that he was playing at a very high level throughout his entire playoffs. If this is the player the Stars got then they made out very well in the trade, but the Blackhawks' willingness to include him in this deal does raise the question "why?".
The upcoming season will be his age 23 season so age is a consideration. He cut down his penalties and seems to have cut down on poor decisions based on the earlier scouting reports so he can learn and develop. On some level the Blackhawks must believe this Johns isn't the real Johns or else there is no way he's available. It remains to be seen if his game will translate to the NHL level, but if this is the real Johns, like the Stars hope, then I don't see how he isn't on the roster opening night.