LOMBARDI ON JOHNSON: In part 4 of a series, Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi talked about young defenseman Jack Johnson and the challenges he faces in his development. Look for part 5 later in the week.
LOS ANGELES — This season, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson has wowed fans with end-to-end rushes, nifty shootout goals and better offensive play. But on defense, even though he has improved since his rookie season, he has blown coverages in the defensive zone and has gotten caught up ice on several occasions, giving up outnumbered attacks.
In other words, the 23-year-old native of Indianapolis, Indiana has been both breathtaking and aggravating to watch, all at the same time.
Now in his third full season in the National Hockey League, Johnson has shown the offensive skill and athletic ability that made him a first round pick (third overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. But his decisions in the defensive zone often leave people shaking their heads after he makes a bad read or blows a coverage.
During a recent interview, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi explained that Johnson is learning his craft…belatedly.
“This guy has never had any coaching [at the University of Michigan],” Lombardi said. “Jack just did what he wanted.”
“Michigan is the worst.” Lombardi added. “For hockey people, if you’ve got a choice between a kid—all things being equal—one’s going to Michigan and one’s going to Boston University, you all want your player [going to Boston University]. Michigan’s players—[head coach] Red [Berenson] doesn’t coach. It’s ‘do what you want.’ He gets the best players in the country.”
During his two seasons at the University of Michigan, Johnson played as a rover, rather than as a defenseman, even though that was his official position.
“Jack was a thoroughbred out there,” Lombardi explained. “But he was all over the place. He was awful as a hockey player. As an athlete, you’re going, wow! Look at the way he skates, shoots, he can pass. But he had no idea where he was going.”
“At times, he was playing forward at Michigan,” Lombardi elaborated. “You had no idea what position he was playing. But he had always been the star and he always got his numbers. Then he turns pro and for the first time, we’re telling him ‘whoa, just make the first pass and learn to play in your own end.’ How about making a read in your own end about the right guy to pick up? He was awful.”
Indeed, the miscues and blown coverages, especially in the defensive zone, were glaring—Johnson was a defensive liability.
“It was a big risk for us to trade for him,” said Lombardi. “There was all that hype and stuff because he’s just like a thoroughbred. It’s like looking at a horse and saying wow! But then he gets on the track and he has no clue how to run the race. He might even run in the wrong direction. That was Jack. [He was] really raw.”
Like many young players loaded with talent and skill, Johnson could not believe it when criticism came his way.
“Here again, you’ve got a kid who’s got to change his game and he can change a game, going end-to-end, getting you out of your own end,” Lombardi noted. “It was like, ‘you’re not good enough at that not to do these other things that you’ve never done.’ Now try and convince him of that after [he has] been told how great [he is throughout his] life, [he has] played in the US Development Program, [he was] at Michigan, everything [was] great, great, great. Now [he is] in the pros and it’s ‘what do you mean? I’m Jack Johnson.’”
“He struggled with it,” Lombardi added. “‘What do you mean, you’re criticizing me?’ Yeah, [I am]. When these kids come up now, this might seem totally abnormal to you, because anyone else growing up probably got slapped around [figuratively speaking] as you were learning your career or anything you’re learning. But these kids are all told how great they are.”
“He didn’t start believing that [he] might have to start doing this until the middle of last season. [Kings head coach Terry Murray, also known as Murph] is a great teacher. Thank God for Murph. He was really a smart player, nowhere near as talented. [He told Jack to] slow down and take it a step at a time. Slowly, he’s gotten better. He’s certainly had his ups and downs. But that’s why he made the Olympic team, because this guy is hard to play against.”
Indeed, Johnson has improved enough that other NHL general managers on USA Hockey’s selection committee named Johnson to Team USA for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia in February.
“What’s good about it was that [Johnson] was eleventh on the depth chart at the beginning of the year,” said Lombardi. “By November, he had risen to the top eight, and in Jack’s case, he went from ten to eight, to seven.”
“Two weeks ago, at the [NHL] Board of Governors meeting, [we met] and I couldn’t promote my own guy, so the other guys would come in—it was out of my hands,” added Lombardi. “[Johnson] was in the top six on everybody’s ballot. I was really proud of him.”
That is certainly indicative of how far Johnson has come in a relatively short time.
“Jack Johnson, three years ago, was all highlight film stuff,” said Lombardi. “But the trouble is, the highlight film stuff was only once every three games. In between, it was all fire drills. [He just had to] simplify [his game]. No highlights. The highlights will come back once you start to simplify.”
“For him to transition from highlight film to doing all this other stuff, you’re not getting that high-end stuff right now while he’s learning,” added Lombardi. “But you’re hoping the [solid defensive play] becomes second nature. He still has to think about it. But when that becomes second nature, now recognize when you can put on your show.”
This season, Johnson continues to make the wrong read and blow defensive coverages. But he is improving slowly—he still has a long way to go before anyone can say he is a solid NHL defenseman.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Lombardi admitted. “I’ve had a lot of young defensemen. They’re always hard to break in anyway. He’s been unique because, like I said, he was a thoroughbred who just ran.”
“I think his learning curve is going to continue to go up,” added Lombardi. “It hasn’t spiked. I think every area of his game has improved, but it has to continue.”
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