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After Thursday’s morning skate, Reese Johnson walked into his media session, sporting a shiner under his right eye from an errant high stick from a Los Angeles King. He was also wearing the smile of a young player who had just earned himself some security. The previous day, the Chicago Blackhawks signed the 23-year-old center to a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season that comes with an $800,000 salary cap hit.
“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” Johnson said with a sense of relief in his voice. “I’m excited to be part of the rebuild and help this team get back to playoff hockey in the coming years.”
Johnson has gone from being an undrafted free agent to a staple on the Blackhawks’ fourth line. Derek King, who had Johnson for two seasons with the Rockford IceHogs, trusts the young forward and appreciates what he brings to his lineup.
“He just needs to continue to play the way he needs to play,” said King. “He’s been showing that, and he’s figured out that we don’t need him to score goals. If he does, that’s a bonus. He needs to defend and bring energy for us. Get up on the forecheck and bang bodies.”
Some may look at Johnson’s stats and wonder why he was the first of the young players that general manager Kyle Davidson gave a new contract. With just one goal and six points in 34 career NHL games, Johnson’s actual value to the team will be underestimated. However, the things that don’t show up on the scoresheet earned him the two-year deal.
“Reese’s work ethic and competitiveness are characteristics we’re always looking for in players we have in our system,” said Davidson. “He is difficult to play against and brings a hard-nosed mentality to each game. Possessing those attributes makes us excited to be able to keep him in the fold of our organization.”
Watching this Blackhawks team during its recent eight-game losing streak, you could question the efforts of quite a few players. Johnson is not one of those. You can never accuse him of taking a shift off. Since returning to the lineup on March 23, he is second in the NHL with 54 hits, including seven in Thursday’s 5-4 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks.
“The biggest thing is being a reliable centerman and being able to play against top players and shut teams down and bring that energy and physical presence every night,” Johnson said of what he needs to do going forward. “I’ve just got to keep on track. The things I’ve been doing will help me get there. I’ll keep learning from the veterans in the league and on our team and keep being coachable.”
King couldn’t say enough good things about Johnson. He sees a lot of qualities in him that will serve him well beyond this season.
“He’s a great kid,” said King. “He’s got leadership qualities. At the end of the season, I don’t have to remind him that he has to work hard in the summer. He’s the kind of player you want in your organization. Other guys will gravitate to him and watch how he works on and off the ice.”
Some fans will look at Johnson’s stat line and make their judgment based on his lack of points. A successful hockey team needs more than just 12 offensive stars. It needs guys who can do the heavy lifting and take the hard shifts. Guys who aren’t afraid to earn a black eye to do their job. Guys who lead by example and put in the hard work every day. Johnson is one of those guys.
Johnson revealed that he has been living with Jonathan Toews this season. He quickly mentioned that he has tried to soak up everything he can from the long-time Blackhawks captain.
“Really thankful for that opportunity, and I’ve learned so much in the last couple of weeks from him,” he said. “I’m really fortunate that he welcomed myself and my girlfriend and our dog into his home. Probably a little bit too much hair around the house for him, but it’s been awesome.”
King has seen Toews’ leadership qualities rub off on Johnson. He hears him being vocal on the bench and in the locker room. He is never running guys down but rather trying to keep everyone positive, which is impressive from a young player who had yet to secure an NHL roster spot.
“The work ethic and character are there,” said King. “The leadership qualities are there. If he’s around here for the next two-plus years, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s wearing a letter on his jersey. That’s the kind of leader he is. I think it’s great that he can take a deep breath, but he still needs to keep playing the way he needs to play.”
That is high praise for a guy with less than half a season of NHL experience under his belt. While Johnson is not THE piece of the rebuild, he is a piece of it. You still need character guys who will mix it up to win in today’s game. When you look past the point production and listen to Davidson and King, Johnson brings quite a bit to this Blackhawks roster.
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