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Bright Lights Back On Johnson

Tuesday, 10.18.2011 / 12:57 PM / Features
By Rich Hammond
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Bright Lights Back On Johnson

Somewhat understandably, somewhat unfairly, Jack Johnson seems to have the spotlight on him mostly when Drew Doughty recedes from it. Once again, the bright lights have come back to Johnson.

Almost from the moment Doughty left Saturday’s game at Philadelphia with an injury, heads turned in Johnson’s direction. As ``the other’’

talented young player on the Kings’ blue line, Johnson immediately stood to inherit increased minutes, tougher situations and, in general, the need to lead the way for the defense.

So, he did. With the Kings down to five defensemen, in a tough building against an undefeated Flyers team, Johnson turned in an excellent performance. He logged 30 minutes, 57 seconds of ice time -- just the second 30-minute game of his NHL career -- and scored a power-play goal in overtime to win the game.

It’s hard to imagine a much better four-game start than the one Johnson had this season. It included two overtime goals -- he had never scored a game-winning goal in 282 previous NHL games -- and two assists and an even plus-minus rating, notable for a defenseman who was minus-21 last season.

The Kings will need Johnson to be strong going forward, particularly in the short term. Doughty, a regular 30-minute player in all situations, was placed on injured reserve Sunday, meaning he will be out for at least a week.

Johnson is expected to stay with his normal partner, Rob Scuderi, but is likely to see increased minutes and will take on an even more important role as a ``quarterback’’ on the power play, in addition to an increase in duties as a penalty killer.

``Jack, he’s a guy who always plays high minutes,’’ defenseman and alternate captain Matt Greene said. ``I think he’s always up in the 20-, 25-minute range. If that gets bumped up a couple more, he definitely has the ability to do it, and he can do it. He’s done it before and I think he will be fine. He’ll be fine getting that extra workload on the PP and the PK.’’

Johnson immediately becomes the Kings’ best puck-moving defenseman, and perhaps their only reliable one. Scuderi, Greene and Willie Mitchell are defensive stalwarts. Alec Martinez was made a healthy scratch on Saturday. Slava Voynov is a rookie without any NHL experience.

Chances are, if the Kings are going to generate sustained offense from the blue line, it’s going to come from Johnson, who has a hard, accurate shot, but Johnson said he doesn’t plan to change anything.

``No. I just keep doing what I do,’’ Johnson said on Monday. ``Playing a lot, and playing on power plays and stuff like that, that’s what I do. I don’t really feel like it’s being put in a different situation.

That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I came up doing, and I’m just going to keep playing.

``I don’t feel like I’m being put in a different situation or different opportunities. Hopefully I can play huge minutes every night, because that’s what I like to do.’’

And while Johnson is correct, that his specific responsibilities and expectations won’t change, he won’t be viewed the same way. Coach Terry Murray acknowledged that the Kings will look for more from Johnson.

``Yeah, a bigger role for Jack,’’ Murray said. ``I thought he was a big horse of a man there in the game in Philadelphia. He played tremendous. He got stronger and played with more authority on the puck. He really tried to take the game over, every time he was on the ice.

``That was outstanding on his part, from my view of it. So I just want to keep building on that and pushing that attitude. It’s the way it is. When you lose a player, somebody does need to step up and take more on, and he has assumed that responsibility. It’s great to see.’’

Johnson, through no fault of his own, has been in something of an awkward situation in terms of his status among the Kings’ defensemen.

He was highly regarded when the Kings acquired him from Carolina in a

2007 trade, then turned in a solid rookie season in 2007-08.

That summer, though, the Kings drafted Doughty No. 2 overall, and Doughty quickly showed signs of being a franchise defenseman, as he outpaced Johnson in most aspects of the game.

Doughty was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2010, but last season, Johnson totaled 42 points to Doughty’s 40 and was far more productive on the power play, where he had 25 assists in 82 games.

Johnson doesn’t turn 25 until January, and is still at an age at which NHL defensemen are ripening. His start to this season indicates that progress is being made.

In the season opener against the New York Rangers, the Kings had a

4-on-3 power play in overtime. Johnson pinched down to the left side of the net, took a cross-ice pass from Mike Richards and banged home a one-timer for the victory and his first-ever NHL game-winning goal.

Eight days later, Johnson once again found himself at the side of the net during an overtime power play, and once again redirected a pass from Richards into the net for the winning goal.

``Same thing on both goals, really,’’ Johnson said. ``I had the easy job, just going to the back post and trying to get lost back there.

Richards made two great plays.’’

Barring a setback, Doughty will be back on the ice relatively soon, but since the start of training camp, Murray has stressed the importance of a strong start to the regular season. That goal, no doubt, will be complicated by Doughty’s absence, but the Kings remain confident on the blue line.

``Against the Flyers), we really saw Willie Mitchell step up his game and also get some power-play time,’’ Greene said. ``Rob Scuderi logged a little bit more ice time than he normally does. Those three guys (including Johnson) really came through. That’s what you need when a guy goes down, on the back end. You need three guys to elevate their games like that.’’