Bruins fourth-line winger Nick Johnson wants to make it very clear that he's happy to be part of the team, as one of the call-ups during the B's recent rash of personnel losses. The Calgary native, who will turn 28 on Christmas Eve, played his sixth game Saturday night in a 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
"I'm here, I'm happy, I feel pretty good," Johnson said after practice Friday in Wilmington. "I'm thankful for the opportunity."But you speak with Johnson about the hockey path he's followed the past 5-6 years, and there is obvious frustration and discouragement in his voice.
Johnson was an NCAA standout at Dartmouth College, where he was the fourth generation of his family (including mom, Ann, a Wayland, Mass., native) to attend the Ivy League school. He played there with numerous future NHLers (including T.J. Galiardi, Tanner Glass, David Jones, Ben Lovejoy and Lee Stempniak) and posted 57-68-125 totals in 133 games.
"It was a good time," he said. "Great school, beautiful town and the hockey was good."
With all these great players in those years, how was it possible Dartmouth not only never won a national title, but never even qualified for the tournament?
"I don't know," Johnson said with a smile. "Maybe we were having too much fun."
He was a 2004 third-round NHL draft pick (67th overall) of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and seemed destined for a successful big league career. But it hasn't worked out that way, as Johnson last night played just the 110th NHL game of his six-year pro career.
He has played for the Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Phoenix Coyotes and Bruins — but only once stuck around for a full season, playing 77 games with Minnesota in 2011-12 (8-18-26). Otherwise, year after year he's been just outside the NHL roster, saddled with the dreaded identification as a "depth player."
"It's been tough a little bit," he said. "I've been bumped around. It's been a tough couple of years. It's tough coming up (from the AHL) and doing well. It hasn't been easy. I mean, it's fine, (but) I haven't developed like I expected."
Johnson was hurt by last year's NHL lockout. Despite playing full-time for the Wild (14:26 per game) in 2011-12, he was released and signed a one-year, two-way deal with Phoenix. He started last season in the minors, but was called up and played 17 games for the Coyotes (4-2-6). But in March, he was back on waivers and back down to the AHL with Portland.
Then he signed with the B's in July — another one-year, two-way deal. When he enjoyed a terrific preseason, scoring four goals, it seemed he might make the team. Based on his play, he probably deserved a spot. Nope. Back to the AHL.
So now he's here, a fill-in until injured guys return. Then it's probably back to Providence.
"You know, it was just politics (going back down after his 77-game season)," said Johnson. "And then last year it was politics. This year, a little bit, politics. I don't know. I'm just happy to be here, and we'll see where it goes."
He was asked how long he'll keep chasing the dream.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "We'll see how this year goes. I'm not playing in the minors next year. It's either I do well here and get a one-way . . . or go to Europe. Then again, there is a lot of opportunity in the (AHL) these days with money. There might be something there, but it's got to be a good situation. You've got to find the right minor league team, city, everything. I know I'm not going to get all the benefit of the doubt with trying to get to this level. I thought I proved it last year, and proved it the year before, and proved it this year in training camp."
Bruins coach Claude Julien terms Johnson "a good call-up guy, a hard worker, reliable."
"In camp, how he scored some goals was pretty impressive," Julien said. "In reality, maybe his goalscoring output in the NHL may not quite be what we saw in camp. But there are a lot of good things with him. We considered him battling for that 13th (forward) spot."
Julien was a "depth guy" himself in his playing days — spending most of 12 seasons in the minors, and playing just 14 NHL games with Quebec — and understands Johnson's frustration.
"Yeah, but you know what? You control what you can control," Julien said. "You do it with your play. If your play is worthy of (the NHL), then you're there. It can be frustrating being a bubble guy. But he's been through a few organizations and the same thing has happened over and over.
"We're a team that's gone to the Stanley Cup final two of the last three years, and he was the last player cut. He should be pretty proud to be part of our group."
Johnson was a psych major at Dartmouth, and indicated he might pursue an advanced degree in the field after his playing career, perhaps becoming a psychologist. If he does, he'll certainly have plenty of useful knowledge to share with people whose careers haven't worked out quite as they hoped.