The 2017-18 regular season brought a lot of grief to the Dallas Stars. But one positive that came out of it was the play of Stephen Johns. The defenseman took a big step forward in becoming a viable and effective NHL defender.
A couple of buddies and I visited Pittsburgh, Penn. last month during our week of spring break. While most college kids prepared to hit the beaches or mountains, we braced the cold, concrete jungle to spend the first few days of our break.
It’s not the ideal vacation spot. But the reason we were up there wasn’t necessarily to see the sights or hear the sounds. It was to check out PPG Paints Arena and see the Dallas Stars take on the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to kick off what eventually became the “road trip from hell.”
As we walked through the concourse in the sea of black and gold before the game began, one thing became prevalent: there were a good number of Stars fans in attendance. But the interesting part was that if you saw a Stars jersey in the crowd, it boasted “Johns” and “28” on the back about 90 percent of the time.
It gets less surprising when you remember that Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns is a native of Wampum, a small town of about 700 people that sits 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh. In other words, he’s kind of a hometown favorite.
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And on exit interview day this past Monday, this particular memory brought a smile to the defender’s face. Johns mentioned that he had over 400 people, both family and friends, in attendance that night to see him play. He’s a guy from a small town that made it to the big leagues, and that’s something for his hometown to take pride in.
But sadly, the happy moment was quickly overshadowed by bitter reality. The reason Johns was standing at his locker stall answering questions was because it would be his last time to do so before training camp in September. A few moments after finishing up the conversation, Johns hauled his equipment bag over his shoulder and headed for the exit for the final time until the fall.
“As many of these guys are probably saying, it’s pretty disappointing,” said Johns. “We were in a playoff spot for 80 percent of the year and to wind up not being in the playoffs, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It sucks.”
The Dallas Stars cleaned out their lockers on Monday before heading home for another long summer. After posting a 42-32-8 record, the Stars missed the playoffs by three points due to a late-season collapse and once again have to figure out what went wrong.
But amidst all of the frustration and disappointment, there were still some bright spots. The team took a big step forward from the turmoil of 2016-17, some free agent signings proved to have big payoffs, and a few players broke out and put on career years. One of those players was Stephen Johns.
The thing about defensive defensemen is that their years cannot be ranked on points. Instead, a few other factors come into play, primarily being how well they play their position and fill their role. Johns took a big step in improving his game and status as the 2017-18 year went on.
No. 28 played in 75 games this season for the Stars. Besides a small stretch of games at the end of October and the final road trip of the season, he was a starter in every game. That’s a pretty big step forward, considering he only played in 75 games through his first two NHL seasons combined.
Johns was traded to the Dallas Stars on July 10, 2015 in a package deal with Patrick Sharp. Some analysts out of Chicago pointed to Johns being the dark horse of the trade and the potential main piece for Dallas. The second round draft pick was expected to possess a wave of potential and be a staple in the Stars’ blue line for years to come.
And in his first season, he showed signs of being that player. He was called up in March 2016 during the Stars’ run to the top of the division. He skated in 16 games and provided a physical force for Dallas that could skate a decent number of minutes. Johns also played in each of the 13 playoff games that year.
Then 2016-17 came along and his potential seemed to hit a wall. Johns had a horrific 2016-17 campaign (like many other Stars players), posting four goals and 10 points along with a -10 rating. He only skated in 61 games and was buried by a handful of healthy scratches throughout the year.
It was clear that Johns wasn’t able to thrive in Lindy Ruff‘s system, which made things even more interesting when Hitchcock was hired in April. Would Johns be able to resurrect his potential and get out of the doghouse? Now that the season has wrapped up, it’s clear that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes.’
“I think I just slowed everything down and learned how to be an NHL defenseman,” Johns said. “I learned when to pick and choose my spots and when to jump up in the play and when not to force plays. Just kind of knowing the situations of the games. I think this year I just became a solid defenseman. That was my goal at the beginning of the year.”
Johns became an effective member of the Dallas Stars defensive core using his play. While he showed clear signs of struggling with his positioning and role in past years, he was lights out for a majority of this season.
The 25-year-old found a new stride under Ken Hitchcock this season and it showed. He made the simple plays, played a shutdown role in the defensive zone, and was a reliable depth defender for the Dallas Stars.
The defensive group as a whole took a big step forward in the 2017-18 season. After finishing in 29th in goals against average in the 2016-17 year, they finished this year tied for sixth with a 2.71 GAA. That’s a sharp contrast, and Johns believes it was due to the chemistry that the blue line group had.
“For the most part this year, we had five guys that pretty much played the whole year,” said Johns. “When you get that consistent of a lineup, you build a chemistry within the team. As a D-unit this year, we had a really good chemistry and fed off of each other really well. We all bought into the system and just fed off each other and played well.”
Five guys is an uneven number, and the sixth guy was constantly changing. And who was always paired with the random sixth member? Well, it was Johns more often than not. Whether it was Julius Honka or Marc Methot coming into the lineup, Johns was typically the guy to be paired with.
But that didn’t stop him from turning in a solid performance. Johns played on the left side for a majority of the season, which is tough for right-handed defenders, and looked as though he didn’t even miss a beat. He was committed to playing a simple style and sticking to his role.
Johns put together an impressive year in the defensive end. Not only did he avoid getting antsy and abandoning his position, but he also found a way to do more with less time. He played about 45 seconds less than he did last season, but still turned in the third highest +/- among defensemen with a +10. Johns also racked up 42 more hits and capped out the season with 201 to once again lead all Stars and also blocked 155 shots for a new career high.
His physicality and willingness to do anything to break up an offensive rush are some of his strongest characteristics. But he also has an offensive side that is becoming more prevalent with each passing year.
“I think I tried to show it this year,” said Johns. “It’s fun chipping in on the offense and I had a couple breaks this year where the puck just found the back of the net. It happened seemingly in a couple months span where everything was going in for me. I think with that, you just kind of have to build on it and use that confidence moving forward. You have to think that you can score every game and I think that’s what I did this year.”
Johns finished the year tied for the most goals among Stars defenders with John Klingberg at 8 goals. His slap shot is probably one of the most lethal on the team and seems to pick him up a goal more often than not. He also put up seven assists for 15 points. For a 6-4, 221 lb. defensive defenseman, those are pretty good numbers. They are even better when you consider the balance that Johns brought to his game in which he abandoned sporadic play.
But it was a good year for Johns to step up. He proved that with more focus and balance, he can be an everyday NHL defenseman. No. 28 provided credible depth for the Dallas Stars on the blue line this year and took a big step forward. He played at even strength and on the penalty kill, turned it up offensively, and spent his ice time playing simply.
Johns proved that he is an efficient choice as a depth defender and is still growing with each passing year. At this point, it looks as though the sky is the limit for the young blue liner.
The blue line is going to look different for the Dallas Stars next year. Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn, who made up the Stars’ second pairing this season, are both unrestricted free agents and it’s highly unlikely that both players are re-signed. Johns knows that, but still believes that the team can bounce back next season regardless of how the lineup looks.
“Obviously, the team is never the same from year to year,” said Johns. “That’s just the business of the game. I think each guy has to individually go back and have a good summer and use this as fuel to ignite our flame at the beginning of training camp next year. Unfortunately, it’s going to be another long summer, but there’s a lot to learn from this year.”
In a season full of unexpected nightmares, one of the bright spots turned out to be the play of Stephen Johns. And now he’s heading home to re-rack and get ready for a 2018-19 year with even higher expectations.
“Just head back to my home in Pittsburgh and train and quiet things down for a bit,” said Johns.
Johns did all that was asked of him and turned in a pretty stellar year for a third-pairing defenseman. His play is encouraging not only for his future, but also the future and stability of the Dallas Stars blue line. Not bad for a kid from Wampum.