Diamond in the rough (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday March 28, 2007 12:36PM; Updated: Wednesday March 28, 2007 1:08PM
"In terms of raw ability, he's as good as anybody we've had," said Michigan coach Red Berenson, who has graduated NHL stars such as Marty Turco, Mike Cammalleri, Mike Comrie and Brendan Morrison.
Berenson's careful choice of words is appropriate. As ready as he is to take this step, Johnson's game remains a work in progress. He took strides in the right direction during his second season at Michigan, cutting the foolish penalties that plagued his rookie campaign (from 149 minutes to 83) and learning to better pick the spots for delivering his thundering hits.
Still, there were more than a few nights when Johnson hurt his team by trying to do too much -- getting caught up ice on ill-timed pinches or coughing up the puck by trying to force it into high-risk areas. He'll make his share of those maddening mistakes as an NHL rookie.
But those rough spots can be smoothed over, especially with veterans like Rob Blake -- Johnson's childhood idol -- and the savvy Jamie Heward on hand to lend some guidance and cover his slip-ups. Figuring out what Johnson can and can't do is only a matter of time with that kind of leadership. And the process is accelerated by getting his skates wet now instead of waiting until October.
The timing of Johnson's arrival is also important considering the work Lombardi has to do this summer. Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky are the only experienced defenders he has under contract for next season. Getting a handle on what Johnson might be able to contribute could color how Lombardi approaches the free-agent market.
One area in which he can make an immediate impact is the shootout, where the Kings have had their struggles. Johnson's two goals for Team USA in the 2006 World Junior Championships semifinal loss to Canada helped prolong one of the most dramatic showdowns in the history of international hockey.
For a taste of what Johnson can do, mark April 3 on your calendar. That's when the Kings travel to Vancouver, host city of the 2005 WJCs and the scene where he became public enemy No. 1 for taking a perceived cheap shot at Team Canada forward Steve Downie. A hostile crowd brings out the best in some players. If anyone's proved that he can thrive under those conditions, it's Killer Jack Johnson.
The Kings weren't the only team to get good news this week, although some will have to wait a little longer to receive their gifts:
Swedish newspapers on Monday reported that Nicklas Backstrom, the fourth overall pick in 2006, is heading to the NHL next season. The 19-year-old center had 12 goals and 40 points in just 45 games with Brynas, earning comparisons to Peter Forsberg along the way. Though he's destined to play with Alexander Ovechkin at some point in his career, Backstrom likely will get the spot alongside 40-goal-man Alexander Semin in 2007-08, leaving the No. 1 center spot open for a free-agent signing.
The Blues had hoped to get Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in last summer's draft, into the lineup after his Minnesota Golden Gophers were eliminated last weekend. The 19-year-old defender chose not to rush the transition to the pro ranks, but indications are that he'll leave school and sign with the team before the start of next season. A Chris Pronger starter kit, Johnson could have an immediate impact on the St. Louis blueline.