As Tyler Johnson prepared for his fourth season with the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs, he was beginning to explore his options. Having gone undrafted by any NHL club and with his junior eligibility about to expire, he began speaking with coaches at Canadian colleges, where he could continue playing while preparing for life without hockey.
That was three years ago. He never made it to a Canadian campus. Today, Johnson has played his way into a substantial role for the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning, providing a seemingly unlikely offensive spark and earning plenty of Calder Trophy buzz.
After a road trip that included stops in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal last week, one of the best kept secrets in the NHL isn't so secret anymore.
“I'd rather just play the game,” Johnson told CBSSports.com of the extra media attention. “We're playing in some pretty big hockey markets, so there's media attention and hype, but I'm just trying to focus on winning more games with the team.”
The 23-year-old rookie speaks softly, but also speaks like a polished veteran despite having just 69 NHL games under his belt. Perhaps that's due more to the hard road he took to get to the big leagues.
Sometimes the chips can be stacked against a player before he ever puts on a pair of skates. Though hockey has been in his home state of Washington for more than a century, it is not a hotbed of developing pro talent.
Johnson wasn't like most kids from the Spokane area though. He was part of a hockey family. His mother was a skating instructor, while his father coached local youth hockey.
“Before I was even born, I had skates and I started skating at a year and a half,” Johnson said. “My mom obviously helped me out a lot. I spent a lot of hours at the rink and on the ice. Growing up, they actually managed one of the local ice rinks there, so I spent even more time at the rink. I've always been skating, I've always loved it.”
Johnson developed into a speedy forward with loads of skill and starred for the Chiefs, his hometown junior club. But even as the points piled up, the pro opportunities did not.
Johnson recalls heading into his final season of junior eligibility with no takers, despite three solid seasons in the WHL previously and two trips to the World Junior Championship with Team USA. At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, he began to wonder if his NHL dream was slipping away.
“I was thinking of backup plans,” Johnson said. “I was talking to CIS schools up in Canada, kind of seeing what I might want to do with the rest of my life if hockey didn't pan out.”
Then Johnson went on an absolute tear for his hometown team in his fourth season. He led the WHL with 53 goals and posted 115 points in that 2010-11 season, good for second in the league.
“I was able to open some doors with NHL teams once that started to happen," Johnson recalled. "That's when I began to realize I was going to get a shot.”
Multiple teams showed interest, but it was Tampa Bay that won the services of the undersized, but dynamic speedster. Nothing ever gets handed to undrafted players, though. Johnson had to prove himself at the AHL level next.
He found himself a professional rookie with a second-year head coach named Jon Cooper, who had taken the long road to the pro coaching ranks himself.
“It's probably the biggest step I've had to take was from junior to AHL,” Johnson said. “[Cooper] helped me out a lot. The defensive side of the game is completely different in pro and there's a lot more emphasis on it. He sat down with me and it took me a little bit longer my first year.”
Johnson turned it up in the second half of his first AHL season and finished the season with 68 points while helping the Norfolk Admirals put together a historic season that ended with a Calder Cup title.
He was still plying his trade in the AHL when Cooper got the call to the NHL to replace Guy Boucher behind Tampa's bench. That became an opportunity for Johnson as well.
He appeared in 14 NHL games at the tail end of 2012-13, only his second full season as a pro, and notched six points. After the season ended, he returned to the AHL and closed out a point-per-game campaign with the Syracuse Crunch in which he also led the team in scoring.
Johnson made Tampa's opening-night roster this year and now he is helping fill the void left by Steven Stamkos, who may finally be nearing return from a broken leg. Johnson has 35 points in 55 games, six points off the pace set by Nathan MacKinnon, last year's first-overall pick.
The budding top-six forward has turned himself into a key player for the Lightning and seems to be only getting better.
Heading into Tuesday night's contest against the Minnesota Wild, Johnson has played 20 or more minutes in 12 of his last 15 games, while occupying a spot on Tampa's top line. He's also a little more than a week removed from his first career hat trick.
“I think more to do with it is confidence,” said Johnson, who has 17 goals this season. “Trying to adjust to the NHL game takes a little bit longer. You grow up watching some of these guys and being your heroes and now you're facing off against them. It's kind of nerve racking at times. The confidence has been a big boost.”
He's also playing on a line with one of those heroes right now..
“Obviously, playing with Marty St. Louis is helping me out a lot and helping me learn the game more and more,” conceded Johnson. “I think that's been great.”
St. Louis is about as perfect a role model as Johnson could ask for. The seasoned veteran also made the NHL as an undersized, underappreciated and undrafted forward. St. Louis then grew into one of the elite players in the game and has blazed a trail for players like Johnson who were overlooked far too often.
“He's just one of those guys that's easy to play with,” Johnson said of St. Louis. “He makes something out of nothing. So I'm trying to watch that, watch his practice habits and replicate it a little bit. He has world-class skill, so I have a ways to go for that. It's a lot of fun and a privilege to play with him.”
When Stamkos returns, there's a good chance that Johnson's offensive responsibilities diminish, but the work he's done in the absence of the Lightning's high-scoring star will go a long way as the season progresses.
Johnson may not win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie as MacKinnon continues to put up big points, but the fact he's even in the conversation at this stage of the season is rather remarkable considering how close he came to maybe not having a pro career at all. Though recognition in the form of something like the Calder would be such a huge accomplishment for an undrafted player, Johnson's putting it out of his mind.
“There's a lot of hockey left,” he said. “At the end of the season, if it happens, it's great, but I'm not really thinking about it.”
In a year with so many great rookie performances, Johnson has been a rather unlikely one. Not even three years removed from contemplating picking out college classes, Johnson is picking corners in arenas across the National Hockey League. So much for those backup plans.