November 27, 2011

From NEHJ: Manchester's Johnson giving career a fighting chance

Manchester Monarchs enforcer Justin Johnson was brought in by the Los Angeles Kings to keep the heat off their younger prospects, but he's 'desperate' to reach his dream of playing in the NHL. (Dan Hickling/New England Hockey Journal)

By Dan Hickling

It’s not that Justin Johnson wants you to believe that he’s a sniper trapped in a fighter’s body.

He knows his role, and he plays it well.

Still, the Manchester Monarchs’ resident heavyweight has bigger things in mind than slugging his way through the minor leagues.

At age 30, Johnson already has done plenty of that, and besides, he knows that there is more to hockey than picking up five-minute majors.
There is the NHL, something he’s never seen personally but still has his sights and heart set on.

“I’m desperate,” Johnson said. “Everybody in here has a dream, and if you don’t have a dream, you’ve got no business being here.”

The past five years, which covers his entire professional career, has been about proving he does belong.

Four years of grinding in the ECHL got him to the AHL.

Now Johnson, in his second season with Manchester, is trying to add as many refinements to his game as possible.

Not that anyone is expecting to match his ECHL goal output of two years ago (13), which equaled his total during his four collegiate seasons at Alaska-Anchorage.

But if the “devil is in the details,” then Johnson aims to be the master.

“I have a thing that (assistant) coach (Scott) Pellerin talks about all the time,” Johnson said, “and that’s to be the ‘King of Little Things.’ That means getting the puck out of our zone. Getting the puck in their zone. Being able to hold onto the puck in the cycle. And making good decisions with it, so I’m not turning it over.

"Whether it’s the subtle nuances of keeping the other team off guard with some verbal barrages or showing a certain level of machismo. (Anything) to make your team confident, knowing they’ve got someone out there to watch their back.”

Johnson did plenty of back-watching last season, after the Los Angeles Kings brought him to Manchester to keep the heat off of their younger prospects.

That would account for the 186 penalty minutes he recorded, mostly five at a time.

And while Johnson may not have piled up the points — just eight, with the first three coming in one game against Springfield — he began to prove to Monarchs coach Mark Morris that Johnson had more to offer than merely a thunderous uppercut.

“He’s worked really hard,” said Morris, who played a large hand in getting another college-bred heavyweight, Kevin Westgarth, up to Los Angeles. “He wants to be a complete hockey player. He’s got very good hands, is very creative, and he’s got a big shot. He’s worked on his conditioning, and is aware that if he can do more than drop the gloves, he’ll be appreciated that much more. And it will give us that much more horsepower when he’s on the ice.”

Johnson, who is a compact, 5-11, 225-pounder, learned about rough-and-tumble hockey while growing up in Anchorage.

There, he palled around with future NHL players such as Matt Carle, Scotty Gomez, Brandon Dubinski and Nate Thompson.

The competition, even as youngsters, had the effect of iron sharpening iron.

“There was a good thing going in that era,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of good hockey players, and that made guys good. Having the great competition, and wanting to see yourself up at that level makes you want to work hard. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in that area. It’s a dark, cold place, so there’s always ice. I had a great time. That’s helped me get to where I’m at today.”

Thompson, the former Providence Bruins captain who has since become the patron saint of NHL plumbers while making himself invaluable to the Tampa Bay Lightning — and thereby earning the nickname “Nate Boucher” as the yang to coach Guy Boucher’s yang — has been both friend and inspiration to his childhood chum, Johnson.

“They love him in Tampa because of what he brings every day,” Johnson said. “They can count on him. He does everything he needs to do to the exact specifications. He really is the ‘King of Little Things.’ He’s carved out a very good niche for himself.”

Of course, it was Thompson’s three-year term in the AHL, his way of laying himself out for his Providence teammates, that allowed him to find that niche in the first place.

Johnson figures if it’s true for “Tommer,” it’s bound to be true for him, too.

“The only way to get there is to work for it,” he said. “And it’s not just my dream that I hold, I have the same thing for all my teammates. If there’s anything I can do to help them be more successful, I can take pride in (that).”

Around the AHL

How’s this for confidence in a young defenseman?

Down two skaters in the game’s final minute while holding a slim 4-3 advantage on the road, Providence Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy elected to use undrafted rookie free agent Kevan Miller to help seal the win. Cassidy’s faith was rewarded as Miller did his part to hold off the win-hungry Portland Pirates.

Just a few days earlier, Miller had his original AHL contract ripped up by the Bruins, replaced by a regular two-year entry-level deal.

That was an indication that the B’s wanted to keep the 25-year-old from Los Angeles in the fold.

“He’s a little bit older,” Cassidy said, “but he’s mature physically and mentally. Miller came up (for six games) last year and showed (all the) signs. With some time down here, he could slide into the (Boston) lineup as a physical (player).”

Miller, who spent four years at Tim Thomas Tech (aka the University of Vermont), was understandably jazzed by the Bruins’ show of commitment.

“It’s extremely exciting,” said Miller, who captained the Catamounts the past two years. “When I came to training camp, the Bruins told me I’d have an opportunity to prove myself. I came in and worked hard, and this is a dream come true for me.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com