After almost two full years of being sidelined by a concussion and post-traumatic headaches, Stephen Johns could return to the Dallas Stars lineup as early as Saturday night in Minnesota. His reinsertion will be an inspired, welcomed, and needed boost for the team.
When the Dallas Stars held practice at the American Airlines Center on Dec. 12, 2019, the session was anything but typical.
Just 48 hours prior to taking the ice, the Stars had held a press conference in the interview room to announce the firing of head coach Jim Montgomery and the naming of Rick Bowness as his replacement.
The shock and confusion was still fresh and lingering throughout the organization and its fanbase. And while Dallas had secured a 2-0 win against the New Jersey Devils in their first game under Bowness on the same day of the firing, the focus was still centered around Montgomery and how his absence might affect the team moving forward.
As the team’s first official practice under Bowness came to a close, the players and coaches headed for the locker room for the usual media scrum.
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Following the interviews and informal talks, the media contingent headed back out into the hallway. Moments later, one final skater joined the rest of the team in the locker room. As the defenseman walked past the group of writers and commentators, he donned a smile and said, “I’m ready to hit someone.”
While that may seem like a typical phrase for a hockey player, it was an important one for Stephen Johns to use. And when you consider that his future in hockey seemed cloudy at best as of the Stars’ 2019 training camp, his excitement was all the more significant.
It’s been an unusual and uncertain two years for the Dallas Stars defenseman. In the midst of a season filled with reaching new heights and taking on a larger role on the Dallas blue line under head coach Ken Hitchcock, Johns hit an unexpected stopping point on March 29, 2018.
After a hit in a game against the Minnesota Wild, Johns left the ice and did not return. The problem was labeled as an upper-body injury and Johns missed the final four games of the 2017-18 season. Considering the Stars were on the brink of being mathematically eliminated from the playoff race, losing the defender provided another obstacle that they would not overcome.
And while the injury prohibited him from finishing out a successful season, it didn’t take away from the individual success that Johns had built in the 2017-18 campaign. Under the guidance of a defensive-minded Hitchcock, Johns had become a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman that could shut down and clean out the opposition in the defensive zone, log minutes on the penalty kill and power play, provide a unique offensive boost with a cannon of a shot, and use his size and physicality to his advantage in all three zones.
He proved that he could be a long-term piece of the Dallas Stars franchise, and was rewarded with a three-year contract extension that carried an AAV of $2.35 million just before the 2018 NHL Draft
Unfortunately, he has yet to play an NHL game under that new contract.
As the 2018-19 season came into focus, the status of the defenseman started to waver. He ended up missing the season opener, though the hope was that he would be back in the lineup before the end of October 2018. That hope turned into November, which turned into December, which eventually turned into Johns not returning during the 2018-19 regular season or postseason. And though he practiced with the team on various occasions and tried to shift back into a daily routine, he never found it.
A little less than two months after the Dallas Stars were eliminated from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Johns joined the team’s prospects on the ice in Frisco for 2019 Development Camp. It was a welcomed sign and while there was a hope that progress had been made during the summer, there was still no clear answer.
Less than three months later, GM Jim Nill addressed the media on the first day of training camp and shut down any extended questioning about the status of Johns.
“Stephen Johns will not be on the ice and moving forward, and since I’d like to focus on the players here at training camp, I will not be answering any more questions,” Nill said. “If there’s an update, I’ll update everyone as soon as I get the information. But other than that, no other questions moving forward. I want the focus on the players here and we’ll go from there.”
From there, the hope that Stephen Johns would ever take the ice in an NHL game once again began to dwindle. There was no clear sign that he had made progress in dealing with the post-traumatic headaches and with the floor no longer being open for questions about the defender, it was anyone’s guess as to how things might end up for him.
The story took another turn on Nov. 30, though, when Johns joined the team at practice and participated in a full session. Following the skate, Jim Montgomery provided a promising update.
“He’s been cleared to rejoin us in practice and we’re going to acclimate him back to the team, slowly but surely,” Montgomery said.
While there still seemed to be a long and uncertain road ahead of Johns in his potential return to the NHL, it was a substantial step in the right direction.
A little more than six weeks later, Johns is now with the team in Minnesota and could very well be in the lineup on Saturday night when the Stars take on the Wild.
It’s funny how quickly things can change.
Following a month of practicing with the team, Johns was sent down to the AHL for a conditioning stint with the Texas Stars. The stint was expected to last between 3-5 games, but Johns ended up only playing in two. That was due to two reasons.
The first reason was that Johns played in both games and did not suffer any setbacks in the following days or practices. Simply getting through the game without any symptoms of post-traumatic headaches was the primary goal. But on top of getting through both games without any hiccups, Johns also excelled and dominated, which leads us to the second reason.
In his first professional hockey game in more than 22 months on Jan. 11, Johns took center stage and played as though he hadn’t been away from the game for more than a couple of hours.
Johns’s fingerprints were all over the Texas Stars’ game plan and execution, and he ended up being the best player on the ice. He logged one goal and three assists, fired seven total shots on goal, and skated valuable minutes at even strength as well as on the power play and penalty kill.
Simply put: he looked like an NHL defenseman.
And while the NHL is still a sizable step up in terms of speed and competitiveness, it’s nothing that Johns hasn’t seen before.
“I’m really excited. I’m very happy for him going back down and playing that well. He scored four points and I heard he was really good. I met him here before the game and it gives me a big smile for sure. He’s a really good player and he’s going to give this team a lot moving forward here if he can stay healthy. We’re very excited to have him back.” – John Klingberg on the return of Stephen Johns
Johns was recalled to Dallas on Thursday night and was in attendance for the 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Nill confirmed to the media that he had the green light to return to action and that it was up to the coaches to make the final decision. Following the game, Rick Bowness sounded as though he were ready to insert Johns into the lineup.
“We’ll talk about that over the next couple of days,” Bowness said on Thursday. “There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday, so we’ll evaluate that tomorrow and Saturday morning.”
If it holds true (and it very well may, especially if Miro Heiskanen is still out with an upper-body injury) and Stephen Johns suits up for the Dallas Stars on Saturday night, it will be a welcomed boost for the team.
And while the Stars currently own the best goals against average in the NHL, adding Johns simply makes them more dynamic.
At 6-4, 225 lb., Johns brings a lot in his style of play. As mentioned above, he’s coming off of a career year in 2017-18 where he transformed into a full-time NHL defender. He logged eight goals, 15 points, and a +10 rating in 75 games while also averaging 17:33 on the ice per game.
Adding him back to the Dallas Stars blue line brings plenty of positive advantages with it, as Jim Montgomery noted back at development camp in June.
“It’s big,” Montgomery said. “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.”
Johns is a big body that can take away time and space using his size, reach, and physicality. He works well in the corners and can clear out the opposition quickly. He plays a strong transition game and can move the puck well.
To top it all off, he has an offensive gene in his game that is still somewhat untapped. Eight goals and 15 points was a promising step forward, but there’s always a chance that more could be involved. He possesses a strong, accurate slap shot and can beat a goaltender when given time and space to choose a corner.
A healthy Stephen Johns can do a lot for the Dallas Stars, both now and down the road. At 27 years old, he’s just now entering the prime part of his NHL career and still has a reputation as a top-four defenseman.
If he does hop back into the NHL rotation on Saturday night, it’s unclear how long it might take for him to completely readjust and catch back up to the pace of the League. But if his short tenure in the AHL is any indication, it may be shorter than expected.
We’ll wait and see what Rick Bowness has in mind at morning skate, but the expectation is that Johns will play on Saturday. Two important points are on the line with the Stars facing a divisional opponent in their final game before an extended break caused by the CBA mandate and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. They sit tied for second place with the Colorado Avalanche, who have two games remaining before their own break.
Stephen Johns could very well play his first NHL game in 660 days on Saturday night. And if he does and all goes according to plan, he should provide the Dallas Stars with an inspired and needed boost.