It must have been hard for Jack Johnson to return to Los Angeles last week and skate at the Staples Center wearing a Columbus Blue Jackets jersey.
All the defenceman must have thought about was the Kings, his former team, hoisting the Stanley Cup on the same ice last June 11. The ice on which he began his National Hockey League career and played valuable minutes from late 2007 until Kings general manager Dean Lombardi traded him on Feb. 23, 2012.
Thing is, a 2-1 loss to L.A. on Feb. 15 probably hurt more for Johnson than seeing the faces of his one-time teammates, who squeezed into the playoffs last spring as the eighth seed in the Western Conference and prevailed in 16 of 20 starts on the way to winning L.A.’s first NHL championship.
"When I left I didn’t really look back. I was looking forward to my new opportunity and getting the chance to play and be myself in Columbus," Johnson said over the phone from L.A.
"I think I was most sad about the people I was leaving outside of my world at the rink. You make friends here and there are places you like to go. That’s what hit home, not being able to see them on a regular basis."
Johnson, 26, said he didn’t watch much of the Kings’ early title run on television while playing for the United States at the world hockey championship in Finland, where it finished a disappointing seventh.
"The reason that team made the playoffs was [the play of goalie] Jonathan Quick. He played unbelievable all year and carried it into the playoffs," said Johnson of the NHL’s 2012 playoff MVP. "Jonathan Quick was, hands-down, the biggest factor in the playoffs.
"Obviously, [the Kings] were able to score more goals than in the regular season [with a 2.85 per game average compared to 2.37]. There also has to be a lot of things go right in the playoffs [to succeed] and there were."
Johnson, who moved on from his L.A. days some time ago, talked to CBCSports.ca about the tight-knit Blue Jackets, his heavy on-ice workload and why NHL coaches are leaning more on certain players in a lockout-shortened season.
1. Columbus has finished at or near the bottom of the West standings in recent years. What do you like about this team?
The core of this team is very good. It’s the closest group of guys I’ve played with [at any level]. If you see one of us, you’re going to see half the team.
It’s a fantastic team. Very rarely can you get a group of twenty, twenty-five guys and everyone gets along. You could pair any two guys to go for dinner and they would have a great time. The closeness is the biggest attribute of this team. The guys really care about each other and want to do well for each other.
2. Defencemen Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers led all players last season with an average ice time of 26 minutes 53 seconds. Entering play Tuesday, four players were averaging more this season. Have you noticed coaches leaning more on certain players this season?
With a shortened season there’s no reason to be saving anyone because every point is crucial and might mean the difference at the end of the season. [Players] are expected to come into the season in shape and ready to go. When coaches are leaning on you I think players thrive on that and play better, and I think those players [who are playing a lot] would tell you the same.
3. Is there a limit on how much time you can handle on the ice while still playing effectively?
I don’t know. I haven’t quite reached the point where I felt I couldn’t go on the ice anymore. I’ve had nine months off [with the off-season and lockout] and that’s why you train.
I love to play and I want to be on the ice. I’ve yet to be in an NHL game where I’ve got too much ice time.
4. Can you compare playing 30 minutes in a college game at the University of Michigan to the NHL?
You’re gearing up all week for two-game series in college. You come [to school] Monday morning and it’s Michigan State week or it’s Notre Dame week or Ohio State week. It’s very exciting because it makes every game feel like a playoff game. It’s a different atmosphere, different mentality going into the games.
The NHL is a lot more positioning and puck movement. I think in college there’s a lot more frantic [play] trying to outskate your opponent, not as much positional hockey, but that just comes with playing at a higher level. Neither one I would say is easy.
5. You played a season-high 34 minutes 59 seconds against Detroit on Feb. 2 and enter play Tuesday averaging 27:20, which is three-and-a-half minutes more than last season and second only to Minnesota defenceman Ryan Suter (27:24) among all NHL players this season. What have been the benefits of your increased ice time?
It was a unique situation [against Detroit] because four [of our] six [regular] defencemen were not able to play [because of injury]. Somebody’s gotta carry more [of a workload] than they normally would.
I think it’s more [about] situational play, knowing I’m going to be on the penalty kill, power play, five-on-five. It just keeps you emotionally engaged in the game. There’s no time to sit around and think about it. I think I’ve always played better [with more ice time] as opposed to sitting for an entire two-minute penalty kill because you then take a step back from the game.
Going back to high school and through college I was right around the 30-minute mark. You adapt to it. After a while, once you play less than that, you feel like you’re not playing but I’ve been feeling good.