Stanley Cup run key for Wolf Pack’s Johnson

by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive

On the surface of it, Hartford Wolf Pack captain Aaron Johnson’s 2012-13 season with the Boston Bruins organization seems like a lost year.

The veteran defenseman played a total of only 12 games the entire season, 10 NHL contests with Boston and two AHL games with Providence, and his last action was March 30, meaning that Johnson was a healthy scratch for Boston’s last 15 regular-season games and all 22 games of the Bruins’ run to Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals.

According to Johnson, however, his tenure with the Bruins was anything but a waste of a season, quite the opposite.

“Even though I didn’t get a chance to play too much in Boston last year, it was really a great situation,” Johnson said after a recent Wolf Pack practice. “I learned so much, just to sit back and watch the veteran guys as they went through the whole season and into playoffs. So I was really excited this summer to get going and figure out where I was going to be, and excited to get back on the ice, really. It’s tough to watch, but you try and constantly learn each day, from guys that have been in these situations and guys that are playing, and I think you can always learn. I just try and take those kind of things and run with them.”

Despite the tough ending to the Bruins’ Stanley Cup hopes, the playoff excitement was the thrill of a lifetime for Johnson.

“It was unbelievable,” the 30-year-old Port Hawkesbury, N.S., native said. “It was two games away from winning the Stanley Cup, it was kind of surreal. At the time you really didn’t realize how big it was, but now to look back, it’s almost upsetting because you don’t know when that next opportunity to ever get that close to the Stanley Cup will be.

“Like I said, it was definitely a learning year. It was kind of fun to watch the guys go through the process and not really be too excited or too down after a loss. It was just maintaining, ‘We’re still good here, we’ll worry about the next game and go from there,’ and that’s kind of the biggest thing I took away from it.”

With that amazing ride entrenched in his psyche, Johnson moved on this year to a new challenge, the opportunity to wear the captain’s “C” for the first time in his career. The 11th-year pro had the honored letter, which his new coach, Ken Gernander, wore for so long as the leader of the Wolf Pack, sewn on his jersey prior to Hartford’s October 5 season opener. Johnson, who signed with the Pack’s parent club, the New York Rangers, as a free agent July 5, has prospered in his new role, and has helped set the tone for what has been a strong early-season performance by the team.

“We’ve got a great group of guys here, obviously a lot of guys that can be leaders,” Johnson said. “And it’s kind of nice, we’ve got a good leadership group, and I think we’ve shown that with the start we’ve had.”

The Wolf Pack roster has an interesting mix of experienced players, like Johnson, who have seen it all and done it all at the pro level, and young prospects just getting their first tastes of pro. The captain has been happy, though, with how well the personalities have meshed to this point.

“We have that leadership group, everything goes through more than just one guy, and we try and keep everyone on the same page,” Johnson said. “I think that’s just stuff I’ve learned over the years. It’s not the older guys and the younger guys, it’s everyone, and we try and get everyone’s opinion and I think that will eventually help us throughout the year.

“It’s always a learning process for the guys that are just coming from junior, and as an older guy you just try and point them in the right direction and help out any way you can. But so far we haven’t had any issues and guys are out there working their butt off and having fun doing it, so you don’t need to say too much to those kind of guys.”

One of “those kind of guys” is Johnson’s defense partner, 21-year-old second-year pro Dylan McIlrath, a first-round pick by the Rangers in 2010. McIlrath has made great strides playing alongside the veteran captain, and credits Johnson for helping him in all aspects of the game.

“It’s great, just the day-to-day routine, I just watch,” McIlrath said of Johnson. “He’s such a pro and I learn so much from him, not only on the ice but just the way he carries himself off the ice, a true role model.”

For Johnson’s part, he feels as though the partnership with McIlrath has been a boon for the older half of the duo as well.

“It’s been great, I think we’ve had some great chemistry so far,” Johnson said. “He’s an easy guy to play with. He’s a guy that understands the game and definitely is very steady as a young defenseman, which I’m sure as the New York Rangers see, it’s exciting because a guy that age sometimes can be a liability, but he’s not at all. He’s a guy that’s able to score, he’s able to fight, great skater, he’s worked on that, from what I’ve heard, from the years before, so he’s really got his game coming in the right direction and hopefully it’ll continue.”

McIlrath added, “Playing with better players is going to make me better as well, and that’s obviously the case (with Johnson). He knows how to find me when I’m open, and not just offensively, but he makes me an all-around better player, just because of his leadership and he just communicates so well on the ice.

“Even after a tough shift, we’ll come back to the bench and sort it out and get back out there. In-game, he’s another set of eyes, and I can pass the puck where I would not normally, because he’s calling and telling me it’s open.”

The Johnson-McIlrath combo seems to be a pairing of contrasting styles. Johnson has always had the reputation of being an offensive-minded, puck-moving blueliner, whereas McIlrath’s calling card is physical play and winning battles. Form has held to a certain degree this year, with Johnson piling up points and leading the team in scoring through the first dozen games, and McIlrath topping the squad in penalty minutes, but McIlrath scored three goals in the season’s first 11 games, after not tallying once in 45 outings as a rookie, and Johnson has been right in the middle of the much of the physicality that has gone on when he has been on the ice.

“As players you really don’t think of yourself as a certain type of defenseman, you try and be an all-around defenseman, and I guess we’re kind of rubbing off on each other,” Johnson said. “I try and play physical like he (McIlrath) does, and I guess I’m playing a little bit offensive right now, and he’s definitely getting the puck towards the net and it’s going in. It’s fun to play in those situations, and hopefully we can continue to grow and become even better.”

One thing is for sure, the lack of playing time last season certainly did not diminish Johnson’s offensive skills. He has kept up a better than a point per game scoring pace through the early season, and will soon be threatening his AHL career high of 35 points if he keeps going at anywhere near the clip he has established.

“I still think there’s a lot that we can work on, but I think it’s more of the team situation,” Johnson said of the offensive stats. “We have guys that are scoring on rebounds and driving the net, and it’s really just been a team success. I don’t think I’ve done anything out of the ordinary. I think it’s more just putting the pucks towards the net, and we’ve got a great group of guys that are finishing. And power play situations, that’s giving me an opportunity to get more points, but I guess that at the end of the day, it’s a group of us out there that are playing well together.”

That group has done a remarkable job in the early going of pulling out points in games that easily could have resulted in losses. Of the Wolf Pack’s first 12 games, 10 were one-goal games, and the Pack’s record was 6-2-0-2 in those contests. Also, even more remarkably, the club was either tied or behind going into the third period of 11 out of those 12 games, with a record of 6-3-0-2 when tied or trailing after 40 minutes.

“We’ve kind of gotten better as the game’s gone along,” Johnson analyzed. “And like I said, that’s one of the things I learned in Boston, is not to get too excited if you’re up a couple goals or down a couple goals, just stay the path. I’ve tried to show that to the guys that are new into these situations. We’ve got a lot of character in our room and I think that’s a great quality and we can continue building off it and know that if we are down a goal or two, that we’re still in the game.”

According to McIlrath, the lynchpin of that character is the man with the “C” on his jersey.

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group and I think it starts with him,” McIlrath said, “just his attitude towards the game, and towards life even. He just makes coming to the rink really easy because you can just look to him and have a smile on your face. I’m really happy with our leadership core all around, and obviously it starts with our captain.”