I have reported this before, but since there seems to be such a misconception out there among some Wild fans or frankly misreporting nationally, I figured I should rehash the Tyler Johnson story.
First of all, if you’re a Wild fan and don’t know the story, put down your lunch and find a garbage can or toilet because you’re about to be sick.
Johnson, the 24-year-old budding star of the Tampa Bay Lightning who leads the NHL with 12 playoff goals (tied for Lightning team record in six fewer games than Ruslan Fedotenko and seven fewer games than Brad Richards), was at the Wild’s 2010 development camp and in a Wild uniform at the 2009 and 2010 Traverse City prospect tournaments as an invitee.
He may be the “one that got away” as I labeled it last year, but that doesn’t mean the Wild didn’t try to sign him.
Here’s what happened (and this is according to Johnson himself when I interviewed him after a morning skate Feb. 4, 2014, in Minnesota, and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr over multiple conversations the past two years):
First of all, this is a kid that was draft eligible three years in a row. There were 632 kids drafted in those three drafts, and nobody, including Tampa Bay, drafted him.
In 2009 (a few months after Fletcher was hired as GM), scout Paul Charles invited Johnson to the Wild’s prospect tournament in Traverse City before the 2009 training camp. Teams do this mostly for the purpose of filling out rosters when they don’t have enough kids to fill a team.
Johnson played well in the tournament, returned to Spokane of the WHL, scored 36 goals and 71 points in 64 games, wasn’t drafted by anybody again and was invited to the Wild’s development camp a few weeks later. He impressed and was invited back for the Traverse City tournament.
This is unfortunately where things went awry: The Wild was very interested in signing Johnson after the tournament. But Johnson told me he hurt his shoulder the first or second shift (I can’t remember right now) of the first game of that 2010 Traverse City tournament (the year the Wild won the tournament) and missed the rest of the tournament.
He was talking to the Wild about a contract at that time, but when he hurt his shoulder, the decision was made to let him go back and play his overage year of junior. Coincidentally, the Wild signed Johnson’s Spokane teammate Jared Spurgeon after that same Traverse City tournament (Johnson and Spurgeon won the Memorial Cup together in 2008). Spurgeon was drafted by the Islanders in 2008, but then not signed by the June 1, 2010, deadline. He went back into the 2010 draft, wasn’t drafted by any of the 30 teams and thus became a free agent, eventually signing with the Wild.
Unfortunately for the Wild, Johnson goes back to Spokane after hurting his shoulder and ends up having a monster 53-goal, 115-point 2010-11 season. Johnson told me about 10 teams came after him and he received contract offers from Tampa Bay, Minnesota and what has since been reported as Chicago.
Johnson sat down with his dad and went over the depth charts of those three teams. In the 2010 draft, the Wild selected Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker.
Johnson told me he just saw a clearer path to the NHL and more opportunity with the Lightning. So he decided to sign with them over Minnesota and Chicago. Obviously, the right decision for himself (to say the least).
If you’re the Wild and Wild fans, it obviously stings. One really does have to wonder if history would have changed if he didn’t hurt his shoulder that one game in Traverse City. Would the Wild have signed him in mid-September like Spurgeon rather than waiting and then trying to sign him after his giant year in Spokane?
In hindsight, just terrible bad luck and timing for the Wild. That’s life.
But this was not the case of the Wild cutting him from two camps like this is little league (that seems to be the perception of some). Teams bring tons of invitees to development camp and prospect tournaments annually. The vast majority go home without a contract.
It’s easy to say in hindsight the Wild should have gotten it done. It’s easy to say in hindsight the Wild was smart enough to bring him to camp but not smart enough to finish it off.
But unfortunately in Johnson’s case, this may have been the late bloomer of the century.
Not drafted three years in a row by 30 NHL teams. Not invited to prospect tournaments and development camps by 29 teams, including Tampa Bay.
Look at it this way: If any of the 30 teams knew he’d be this good, he would have been a first-round pick, not passed over 632 times by 30 teams and signed as a free agent after a tremendous overage year in junior.
The Wild’s being painted as the dumb guys here, but frankly, the whole league whiffed.
That’s a testament to what this kid has accomplished the past two seasons.
Teams are so leery of smaller players even if the skill is obvious (it’s not like Johnson was a secret; he won a Memorial Cup, combined for 132 points from 2008-10, played on the U.S.’s world junior team in 2009 and 2010).
This is not the first time a little guy makes NHL teams look stupid.
Johnny Gaudreau was passed over 103 times in 2011 before Calgary took him.
Dan Boyle was undrafted, signed by the Florida Panthers because former Miami University coach Billy Davidge was a scout there, eventually traded to rival Tampa Bay for squat and became a star.
Martin St. Louis, a future Hall of Famer, was undrafted and bought out by the Calgary Flames.
Spurgeon, unsigned by the Islanders, undrafted again by 30 teams, coming off a solid playoff, will next season be a $3.6 million hockey player and is a year away from getting a big, long-term contract.
Ray Whitney, coincidentally a former Spokane player. The “Wizard” was placed on waivers by his hometown Edmonton Oilers and picked up by the Florida Panthers. He scored 32 goals that season and ended a 1,330-game, 1,064-point playing career with a 2006 Stanley Cup.
Like I said, it stinks. Johnson is no doubt the one that got away from the Wild.
I’m sure Fletcher rehashes everything in his mind almost nightly this postseason. Somebody jokingly asked me on Twitter if I think Fletcher takes a shot every time Johnson scores this playoff. Probably.
But every decision is a no-brainer in hindsight, and judging from what Johnson told me, this just seems like a case of the worst luck ever.
For the Wild. Not the Lightning.
In Wild news,
The Wild re-signed restricted free agent Michael Keranen to a one-year, two-way contract. Keranen, 25, who did not make his NHL debut last season (was called up but never played), tied for second on the Iowa Wild in scoring with 37 points and led Iowa with 27 assists.
The Swedish-born Finn scored 17 goals and 52 points for Ilves Tampere in Finland’s Elite League in 2013-14. He ranked tied for first in the league in scoring and tied for second in assists and received the Lasse Oksanen Award given to the best player during the regular season.
I figured Keranen may just return to Finland. But Keranen re-signing shows just how much he wants to play in the NHL. We’ll see if a year’s experience transitioning to the North American pro game gives him a good foundation as to what he needs to work on this summer. Keranen, a good buddy of Mikael Granlund, saw Granlund improve dramatically his second year after a big 2013 summer back in Finland.
By all accounts, Keranen showed steady progression the last few months of the season. When you have the rights to a skilled forward like Keranen, bringing him back makes sense. Maybe the Wild can find a diamond in the rough. We shall see.
Nothing else going on with the Wild. The team just completed amateur scouting meetings. The Wild will begin contract negotiations with Devan Dubnyk's reps next week. Organizational meetings (where many decisions will start to take form) are June 8-10. I'll blog early next week again on all of this.
Have a great weekend.