Tyler Johnson didn’t exactly come out of nowhere this season. His rise from undrafted free agent to American Hockey League MVP to NHL Rookie of the Year finalist put his name on many a list.
That included the executive staff for USA Hockey when the advisory committee started putting together potential candidates for the roster for this year’s World Championships. Johnson became available after the Lightning were swept out of the playoffs in the first round by Montreal.
“It’s hard to be a hidden gem anymore when you’re up for rookie of the year,’’ said Tom Kurvers, senior adviser to the general manager for the Lightning and a consultant for Team USA for the World Championships. “He’s lived up to the attention that he’s earned this year.’’
Johnson assumed the top center role for head coach Peter Laviolette during the preliminary rounds. The United States finished second in its group and will play the Czech Republic in today’s quarterfinals. The game is set to begin at 9 a.m. and will be shown on tape delay on NBCSN beginning at 9:30 a.m.
The winner faces either Finland or Canada in Saturday’s semifinals.
Johnson is not the only Lightning player in action. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevski and Russia will face France, while defenseman Dmitry Korobov and host Belarus face Sweden.
Just as he did for the Lightning in his rookie season, Johnson is playing in all situations — and producing in all of them. In the seven preliminary games, the 5-foot-9 center from Spokane, Wash., finished tied for 10th with four goals and 19th in scoring with seven points.
“It’s been fun,’’ Johnson said of his first experience with the senior national team after stints with the World Junior team in 2009 and 2010. “I like to be one of the guys that makes a difference. I like to feel like I can do that. And to have the opportunity that I’ve been having and to be able to play as much in the situations that I have, I’ve been just trying to help the team out as much as possible.
“So it’s been great. I don’t really look at it as No. 1 center or anything like that. I’m just trying to help the team out and help everyone move on.’’
Though he doesn’t see himself in that top-line role, Johnson is the only forward on Team USA averaging more than 20 minutes per game and his ice time of 20:29 is 91 seconds more per game than any other forward. He also leads the team with two game-winning goals, including a late third-period goal in a victory against Switzerland. He picked up a pair of third-period goals in a key 3-1 victory against Finland, when he was voted the player of the game for his team.
“It’s just another level of hockey that his name is now very well-known. Teams are aware of him and he’s one of our top players here,’’ Kurvers said. “He does things that just make him have an influence on the game, no matter if he is finishing goals or not. The speed and his tenacity and his responsibility are all there.
“So, it’s impressive the way he continues to adjust to different levels. And now it’s a slightly different game (at the international level), but he still has an impact on the game and does a really good job.’’
The success Johnson has enjoyed in his first tournament on international ice is just another step up the ladder.
“It’s a completely different game. A lot more time with the puck, you have extra time to make those decisions, a lot more skating is involved with the big ice,’’ Johnson said. “But it’s been fun. It’s different, something that you have to adjust to a little bit. But it’s been good and it’s a good group of guys, so that makes it even more fun.’’
Johnson’s ability to adapt and succeed has been noticeable to Kurvers, who spends most of his time during the NHL season scouting college games.
DEFENSEMAN SIGNS: The Lightning announced the signing of defenseman Dylan Blujus to a three-year entry-level contract. The 2012 second-round pick finished his junior career this season, scoring four goals and 10 points in 22 playoffs games as North Bay Batallion won the Ontario Hockey League championship. In four OHL seasons, Blujus (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) had 17 goals and 119 points in 256 games.