One of the most intriguing parts of the Dallas Stars’ 2019 development camp so far doesn’t have to do with a prospect. Instead, it has to do with Stephen Johns, who has been skating and taking part in the drills. And if he continues to progress in the right direction, he could provide a significant edge to the team.
After hosting off-ice testing to open up their 2019 Development Camp on Monday, the Dallas Stars had their first chance to see their top prospects on the ice on Tuesday morning. And yet, those prospects weren’t the top story.
Amidst the release of the 2019-20 NHL regular season schedule, the Hockey Hall of Fame announcing the induction of former Stars Sergei Zubov and Guy Carbonneau, and the NHL qualifying deadline for restricted free agents, one of the top stories within the Dallas organization was defenseman Stephen Johns’ participation in various development camp drills.
And if you’ve kept up with the Dallas Stars at all throughout the past season, you know that this is a big development.
Johns, 27, hasn’t played in a regular season hockey game since March 29, 2018. In a somewhat meaningless game (the Stars were three days away from being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs race) against the Minnesota Wild, Johns only skated 6:13 before exiting the game with an injury.
That injury was eventually labeled an “upper-body” issue and caused him to miss the rest of the 2017-18 regular season. A few months after signing a three-year extension, though, Johns took part in the Stars’ 2018 training camp and all seemed to be back to normal.
But after missing the preseason with a lingering injury and eventually being unable to start on opening night, the announcement was made that Johns was suffering from post-traumatic headaches.
And though he made multiple attempts to return to the lineup during the 2018-19 season, the injury ultimately held him back from competing as he missed the entire year.
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Losing him for the entirety of the 2018-19 season was a shot, especially considering his career year on the Dallas blue line in 2017-18. And while the Stars’ defense found a way to become one of the NHL’s best during 2018-19, having Johns in the mix would have further solidified the group.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, he seemed to take another positive step forward in getting back to playing condition.
Johns skated on the ice with some of the Dallas Stars prospects and coaches and participated in a handful of drills. In addition, he even played a lighthearted version of “skeet shooting” with Jason Robertson as the two tried to shoot pucks out of the air before a drill began.
“It’s really exciting,” said Stars coach Jim Montgomery. “Hopefully, this is the first of many positive signs towards what he is going to be able to do for us next year.”
Considering Johns missed all of the 2018-19 year despite getting on the ice on a number of occasions in an attempt to get back to playing form, it’s impossible to try and predict when he may be fully healthy and ready. It’s all up to the player and how he feels after extended skating sessions. But after Tuesday’s skate, Johns mentioned to Montgomery that he felt good.
“When a guy has been out as long as he has been, you don’t want to ask him every day about how he is feeling,” said Montgomery. “But today after he skated, I asked him how he felt and he said he felt good. That’s a positive sign and hopefully that continues.”
And while July 1 is already looking like a busy and important day for the Stars, one of the most important developments to follow will be the status of Stephen Johns as the team approaches training camp.
If Johns continues to progress in the right direction and is ready for training camp, the preseason, and even the 2019-20 regular season, he would bring an important element and edge to an already-stocked Dallas blue line.
“It’s big,” Montgomery said on Tuesday about the potential return of Johns. “He’s long, he has length, he can skate, he’s big, he’s physical, he can handle people down low, he can score goals with a bomb of a shot. There’s a lot of elements of his game that are going to make the Dallas Stars better.”
When Johns was traded to Dallas on July 10, 2015 along with forward Patrick Sharp, there were many analysts who projected that the defender would be the centerpiece of the deal instead of his superstar counterpart.
And since making his NHL debut towards the tail end of the 2015-16 season, the defenseman has undergone a growing process. After struggling to consistently produce (along with the rest of the Dallas defense) during the 2016-17 season and watching his minutes shrink, Johns had a bounce back year under head coach Ken Hitchcock in 2017-18 and unveiled a new level of potential.
In addition to his size (6-4, 225 lb.), Johns can play in all three zones. He’s a physical force that can play well in the corners and on the back check while limiting time and space using his aggression. Johns posted 201 hits and 155 blocked shots during the 2017-18 season and transformed into a quality second-pairing option. He can play in a shutdown role and play solid minutes on the penalty kill using his reach and positioning.
In the offensive zone, he has a powerful and accurate slap shot that can be used on the blue line. He tallied a career-high eight goals and 15 points as well as a +10 rating during the 2017-18 campaign and became an option to use in the offensive zone.
Adding Johns back into the defensive mix will provide the Dallas Stars with plenty of positive assets, one of them being stability and balance.
“I think everybody’s minutes will get to where they should be and it’s going to allow us to play three pairings a lot more,” said Montgomery. “Everybody’s minutes come down, his minutes would be right where you would expect as a number four defenseman in the league. It just makes us so much more dynamic, it makes us more versatile, it makes us have three righties and three lefties.”
With Stephen Johns, the Dallas Stars have a proven top-four defender that can balance out the minutes in the back end. In addition, he could combine with Miro Heiskanen to form a balanced second pairing.
“Yes,” Montgomery answered when asked if Johns would be a good fit alongside Heiskanen. “Because of his length, because of his lateral movement, and his ability to skate and take away time and space and Miro’s ability to read off someone. If you look at all of the different partners Miro had, it seemed like he could assimilate to any new partner within half a period.”
Regardless of where he plays in the lineup, bringing Stephen Johns back into the fold should prove to be a serious asset for a Stars blue line that already reached new heights in 2018-19.
But in the end, it’s up to him and how he feels. As of right now, things seem to be trending in the right direction.
“There’s a lot of great things that come with a healthy Stephen Johns,” Montgomery noted.