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Tampa Bay Lightning

Bolts' prospect Johnson standing tall in making climb

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:03 AM

During the summer months, Tyler Johnson likes to squeeze in some pickle action.

One of Johnson's favorite activities when back home in Spokane, Wash., is to head out to the back yard of his parents house for a game of pickle ball – a racquet game that is cross between tennis and ping-pong played using a waffle ball on a small court.

After a long hockey season, it's a way to unwind away from the ice while still keeping sharp.

"It's an unbelievable sport,'' said Johnson, an undrafted free agent now in his second season with the Lightning organization. "It's a lot of fun.''

Johnson had plenty of fun during his first season as a professional in helping Tampa Bay's affiliate in the American Hockey League, Norfolk, capture a Calder Cup championship. The 22-year-old finished his first season with 31 goals and 68 points – seventh overall in league scoring – was outshined in the AHL rookie class only by teammate Cory Conacher, who went on to win league MVP honors in addition to rookie of the year.

And just like Conacher, Johnson has often been overlooked because of his lack of size. At 5-foot-10, 183-pounds Johnson hardly towers over any of his opponents. But that's never slowed down his production as he's picked up where he left off from last season leading Syracuse – the Lightning's new affiliate – with eight goals and second with 12 points, one behind Conacher.

"(Johnson) is very competitive,'' said Syracuse general manager Julien BriseBois, who also serves as Lightning assistant general manager. "He is a winner (and) also a fabulous skater with a great shot.''

In junior Johnson helped his home town team, Spokane Chiefs, capture a Memorial Cup championship in 2007-08, where he was named Western Hockey League playoff MVP, before being a part of the gold medal winning Team USA at the 2010 World Junior Championship in Ottawa.

Despite the resume, he went undrafted and was unsigned even after attending to two NHL training camps – Minnesota and Phoenix – before the Lightning signed him to a free agent entry-level contract.

Now, if there were an NHL season taking place, he might be knocking on the door for a NHL job. But Johnson is not letting any of that affect how he goes about his business as he tries to keep improving in hopes of one day earning an NHL shot.

"I think even this year I have gotten smarter with the puck, smarter with my decisions with the puck and just being able to do that. So that's been good,'' Johnson said. "I've gotten stronger which is something that I've always needed to do and got heavier which I've never been able to do before up until this year. The summer was a good summer for me there is a lot that I've grown as a person as a player but there's still a lot more that I need to do and I realize that.

"(But) we are really just focused on playing our game here and winning games here and getting better as players and people; when it's our time it will be our time.''

The Crunch players did get a small taste of what it would be like when it is their time when Syracuse faced Hamilton on Friday at the Bell Centre in Montreal. With a near sell-out crowd of over 18,000 fans, the atmosphere was certainly NHL-esque.

"It was unbelievable,'' he said. "As a hockey player growing up you hear stories about the history of Montréal and the passionate fans, so to be able to play in front of them it was just unbelievable. They were very, very loud and very, very energetic and it was a lot of fun. Obviously you want to say it is just like any other regular season game but it had a little different feel, a different vibe and everybody had that little extra jump in their step playing in front of 18,000 people.''

Should he continue on the same path, Johnson might be playing in front of large crowds like that on a regular basis in the near future.

And wouldn't that be quite the pickle.


eerlendsson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7835 Twitter: erlendssonTBO

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