Eugene, OR - Less than ten years after leading the Coeur d'Alene Lakers to the Cascade Cup Finals, NPHL alum Tyler Johnson's 21 points in 20 postseason games has put the Tampa Bay Lightning four wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.
Johnson will undoubtedly be looked to by his teammates as one of the primary - if not THE primary - goal-scoring threat for the Lightning when they take on the Chicago Blackhawks starting Wednesday evening. Johnson, whose playoff heroics have made him a household name nationwide, originally made his name playing in NPHL, formerly known as the NORPAC (Northern Pacific Hockey League). It was there that Johnson first put himself on the map and began a meteoric rise that now sees him just 24 hours away from playing in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In just a few weeks, the undersized underdog has gone from relative no-name to household name, helping lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to just their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in their 23-year history. Johnson's 21 points (12 goals, 9 assists) in 20 Stanley Cup Playoff games has been nothing short of remarkable, but it shouldn't be a surprise, either. After all, since his days playing Tier III hockey in the NPHL, Johnson has been filling up the stat sheet at every level he's played.
"Tyler demonstrates that development is a slow process that requires extraordinary focused ambition," said Flint Doungchak, GM of the Eugene Generals who also held the same role while Tyler Johnson was playing in the NPHL. "He started in a league that was to his level. He played a lot and became an impact player. He then climbed the ladder to the next level. Rinse and repeat. Over 10 years, it's how you make an NHL player."
Johnson originally started his Junior Hockey career way back in the 2005-06 season with the Couer D'Alene Colts, playing just 11 games that season while collecting 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists). That following season, the hockey world got their first glimpse of the Tyler Johnson we all know today. Playing for the re-branded Couer d'Alene Lakers, Johnson racked up an astounding 120 points (56 goals, 64 assists) in just 39 regular season games, helping lead the Lakers to the NORPAC Finals while scoring two-or-more points in all but four regular season games. His 120 regular season points during the 2006-07 season led NORPAC by a wide margin, and that tally still stands as the third best point total in NPHL single season history.
"He was a great player then, but it wasn't as if he was above the league, especially in his first year," recalls Doungchak. "The NPHL back then, like it is today, was a place to develop, play a competitive schedule against elite players, practice like a pro, and incubate your talents and turn them into an elite hockey skills package. Tyler is obviously an extreme example of that."
"It's hard not to remember Tyler Johnson," recalls Eugene Generals Head Coach Justin Kern, who played for the Generals against Tyler Johnson during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. "You could tell he was something special right away. He was small, but lightning fast - pun intended - and a super skilled player. I remember he only played a few games his first year in Couer d'Alene, but that second season... Wow."
That 2006-07 season marked the beginning of an astronomical rise for Johnson, which led to playing for his hometown Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League. Johnson never missed a beat after transitioning to the Chiefs, netting 13 goals and dishing out 29 assists in 69 games during the 2007-08 season as the Chiefs would win the Ed Chynweth Cup as WHL champions and Johnson would be honored as the WHL Playoff MVP, before eventually following that up by winning the 2008 Memorial Cup.
Johnson would go on to play three more seasons in the WHL with Spokane, becoming one of just 15 players in franchise history to score 100 points in a single season (2010-11) while scoring 128 goals and dishing out 187 assists in his WHL career. In addition, Johnson's outstanding play earned him a spot on the USA World Junior Championship team, a team that would go on to win gold in 2010 thanks in part to Johnson's 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 tournament games.
However, despite his eye-popping stats and success at multiple levels, Johnson went undrafted in the 2011 NHL draft, which scouts largely attributed to his small stature. He would go on to sign a three-year entry-level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning before being assigned to their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals.
As one might expect, Johnson quickly found success in the AHL as well, leading the Admirals to the Calder Cup in his first season while tallying 31 goals, 37 assists, and 68 points along the way. Oh, and he also helped the Admirals do this by doing things like this. Less than a year later, he was named the AHL's MVP and President's Award winner, all culminating in receiving his very first call up to the NHL. After getting a taste of the show during the 2012-13 season, he began the 2013-14 season on the Lightning's 25-man roster, and eventually finished the year as a Calder Trophy finalist for top NHL rookie. Since then, he's been a fixture on Tampa Bay's first line and a force to be wreckoned with at both ends of the ice.
"To see his path from the NPHL to the WHL to the NHL has been nothing short of remarkable," said Kern. "He already has a lot of fans up here in the Northwest pulling for him, but I think he's made a lot more fans over the past few weeks."
Johnson and the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Chicago Blackhawks in Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals starting Wednesday at 5pm PST on NBC.