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Diamond in the rough

Nasty blueliner Jack Johnson will be a huge hit in L.A.

Posted: Wednesday March 28, 2007 12:36PM; Updated: Wednesday March 28, 2007 1:08PM
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The cocky Johnson (left) does not treat opponents gently and will give the Kings' backline corps some genuine ferocity.
The cocky Johnson (left) does not treat opponents gently and will give the Kings' backline corps some genuine ferocity.
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In the movies, the cavalry always arrives just in the nick of time and saves the day. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way in the NHL. But for at least one team facing another playoff-less summer, a last-minute reinforcement provides a reason to believe things will improve next season.

The long-suffering Los Angeles faithful will get a look at a big part of their future on Thursday night when Jack Johnson pulls on a Kings sweater for the first time. As good as Anze Kopitar has been this season -- and the 19-year-old Slovenian forward has been a bright light in a very dark tunnel -- it is Johnson who is at the core of GM Dean Lombardi's vision for reconstructing the Kings.

Taken third overall in 2005 by Carolina, Johnson was expected to inject some youth into one of the league's oldest bluelines. But sensing a window of opportunity in the wake of the 2006 Cup win, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford chose the value of two veterans in hand over one kid in the bush.

Despite Johnson's immense promise, Rutherford dealt his rights to the Kings in October for a package that included Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger. Gleason has worked out in the short term (Belanger was dealt to the Predators for Josef Vasicek), but the Kings' side of the deal has the more lucrative future.

The 6-1, 210-pound Johnson has the potential to be the NHL's next black hat-wearing bad guy, a nasty, take-no-prisoners defender in the mold of a young Chris Chelios. If he lives up to the unanimous ravings of scouts around the league, he'll become a 30-minute defender who can quarterback both special teams and lead the league in highlight-reel hits.

Just as important for a team struggling to gain traction in a crowded sports market, Johnson has the makings of a cult hero. Think Jordin Tootoo with a triple helping of talent. Johnson became a legend at Michigan for his relentless physical play. At Yost Arena, home of the Wolverines, he would hear serenades of "Kill, Jack, Kill" as he drew a bead on an opponent. If hitting's not the best part of his game, it's certainly the element he enjoys the most.

Johnson was clearly the most talented player in the CCHA this season, scoring 16 goals and 37 points from the blueline. And just as clearly, he was the most hated. It wasn't just the offense, not just the hitting. It was the attitude. Johnson, 20, plays with supreme confidence, a swagger that at times borders on arrogant. That's what comes from years of playing against talent that is below your level.

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