TAMPA — Tyler Johnson knows how to score goals.
Right now, it’s not happening like the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie center is accustomed.
The chances, however, continue to pile up for the 2012 American Hockey League MVP.
On Nov. 22 at Anaheim, he had two partial breakaways and a 2-on-1 opportunity. On Nov. 16 at Phoenix, he had a breakaway in the first period. There was the third-period chance he had in Detroit in early November, and the breakaway against Martin Brodeur in New Jersey in late October. And the open net he stared at during a power play at home against Anaheim on Nov. 14, only to see his one-timer from the left circle strike the post.
Not that he’s keeping track.
“I try not to,” Johnson said. “Obviously, there’s some guys on the team that might keep track of them for me, but I try not to. ... It’s tough to say you don’t get frustrated, but at the same time I realize I am getting those chances and they are bound to go in at some point.”
Entering today’s game against the Penguins, Johnson ranks fifth among rookies with six goals. With a little more luck, perhaps he would be closer to rookie leader Tomas Hertl of San Jose, who has 12, and be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy as a potential rookie of the year.
But nobody is sweating over his missed opportunities — least of all Johnson. His track record suggests he’ll figure it out.
In his last three seasons with Spokane in the Western Hockey League he scored 26, 36 and 53 goals, respectively. In his first season in the AHL with Norfolk he finished with 31 goals. And last year, with Syracuse, he led the league with 37 goals and was named MVP.
Johnson has not forgotten how to score. He’s just learning how to do it at the NHL level.
“My first year in Norfolk, at the start of the season I was snake-bitten for almost half the year up until January or February,” Johnson said. “Even last year I had a whole month where I didn’t score. It’s just one of those things — they come and go sometimes. So as long as you keep working hard and get those chances, they are bound to go in eventually.”
It’s similar to what Marty St. Louis experienced when he found a regular role with the Lightning in 2000-01. St. Louis seemingly had a breakaway on a nightly basis, using his speed to create chances, but he failed to convert. Eventually, St. Louis began to put those chances in the net.
“He’s putting himself into those situations, so that’s a positive,” St. Louis said of Johnson. “All you need sometimes is for one of those to go in and then the floodgates open. I wouldn’t worry about it so much. He’s getting the breakaways and he’s in good positions. You keep getting those opportunities, eventually they will go in.
“You just have to stay the course, and as frustrating as it is, you are putting yourself in good positions.”
Johnson has scored twice in the past four games, including an empty-netter at the end of Wednesday’s victory against Philadelphia.
“It’s a start,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But I don’t worry about his game at all. I’ve watched this kid’s game get better and better. Goal scorers go through this all the time, and sometimes they get hot, sometimes they are not. You are looking for consistency, and for the most part you are seeing that. He’s still a rookie in this league and figuring things out.”
But there is more to Johnson’s game than scoring, as his all-around game keeps him on the ice in all situations. Even playing on a line with fellow rookies Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik, Johnson is counted on late in games to protect leads.
His value to the team goes beyond his scoring ability.
“He’s a young player that is learning his way and experiencing a lot of things for the first time,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “Generally I’m pretty pleased with how Tyler has played. His speed and his hockey sense and his competitiveness have made him a valuable player.”