MILWAUKEE — Last season did not go well for Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson.
He went from the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning to the dysfunctional Hawks. His long-lingering back injury blew up, requiring him to follow in Jack Eichel’s footsteps and have artificial disc-replacement surgery. Even after returning from that, he missed more time with a concussion and never found his scoring rhythm.
So the best part about this season for Johnson might be that it’s not last season. Just listen to how he describes it.
”Last year was a whirlwind with everything going on, and then getting hurt and then coming back and having the season we were having,” he said recently. ”Last year was honestly, right from the get-go, kind of a messed up year.
”Everyone that was there last year that’s here now . . . [is] just refreshed. There are a lot more smiles, and guys are a lot happier than even what they were at the start of last year. It’s a whole different dynamic right now, and it’s really good.”
But the passage of time isn’t the only reason Johnson feels more optimistic about 2022-23. He also finally had the kind of summer — relaxing and rejuvenating — that he needed to enter training camp at his best.
”I’ll be able to be a lot better than I was,” Johnson said. ”A lot of that has to do with feeling healthy, having a [full] summer [and] mentally and physically resetting.”
He got to begin his offseason in April, like normal, rather than in October, like in 2020 (after the Lightning’s COVID-19 bubble title), or in July, like in 2021 (after the Lightning’s delayed title).
He experienced no complications with his artificial disc and woke up every morning feeling pain-free. He went fishing in Mexico and spent time back home in Washington state.
And he adopted Hawks strength-and-conditioning coach Paul Goodman’s famous workout schedule and exercises. With the Lightning, summer training revolved primarily around one thing: ”How much you can lift?” Johnson quickly realized this was a bit different.
”That was a lot of cardio, a lot of movement-based stuff, a lot of different stuff that I haven’t really done before,” he said. ”Now I feel like I’m a little more connected to my body. And I didn’t have to worry about my neck or my shoulders at all, so I didn’t have anything that I had to watch or be careful with. It was nice to just push myself.”
Now the most pressing question is how similar Johnson, at 100% mental and physical health, can be to the player he used to be. Can he be close to the version of himself that scored 45 or more points in three consecutive seasons (2016-17 to 2018-19)?
Playing time will be readily available on this Hawks team, and if Johnson rushes out of the gate like a 45-point guy, he could secure a top-six role. On the other hand, he is 32 years old — when/if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews depart, he’ll be the oldest Hawks forward — and produced at a mere 22-point pace even when he was in the lineup last season.
Only time will tell on that front. In the meantime, new coach Luke Richardson is already appreciating the experience and positivity Johnson brings.
”He’s helpful on the ice at practice — with players and coaches — to make sure that we get a beat on whether things are being ingested properly and understood,” Richardson said. ”He’s got a great personality, he’s smiling and he likes to have fun. I used to hate [coaching] against him . . . because he brought energy to the other team, and that’s what he’s going to do for us this year.”