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Shock of being dealt gives way to work

Center Ryan Johnson has adjusted to being with the Lightning and pledges to be prepared.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


BRANDON -- The first trade, when perceived loyalty and fragile trust are violated, always is the toughest for a young hockey player.

It was for Ryan Johnson.

He experienced it last season when playoff-bound Florida traded him to the Lightning in mid-March as part of a three-player deal before the NHL trading deadline.

"People have always told me your first trade is always a big deal mentally and emotionally," Johnson said. "And it certainly was. ... I just kind of went through the motions, trying to figure everything out instead of just coming in here and playing hard."

The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native was taken by Florida in the first round (36th overall) of the 1994 draft. He played in 66 games for the Panthers last season, scoring four goals with 12 assists and 14 penalty minutes.

Johnson, 24, had two points in 14 games with the Lightning, who wanted the 6-foot-1, 200-pound center because of his speed and strength. "When he got here last year ... he may have been in a little bit of shock," Lightning coach Steve Ludzik said. "He had a hard time getting his head into playing."

Once the season ended, Johnson realized something needed to be done to get him out of the funk.

So he met with Ludzik.

He left the coach impressed.

"He said, "Look, I know I didn't play well. I was awful. I'm a better player than that. I'm a better hockey player than I showed you.' " Ludzik said. "I like that."

In the off-season, Johnson began to refocus and see how fortunate he was to be in the NHL no matter which team he played for, no matter what had happened a couple months before.

"I just wanted to make sure I came to take full advantage of it," Johnson said.

A self-described slow starter in training camps, he arrived at camp ready both physically and emotionally.

"I always train hard," Johnson said. "I wanted to be in the best condition that I could be in. Also, mentally, you prepare for the season. With the way it ended last year, I wanted to make sure that I was coming in here with something to prove and something to show the coaching staff, the management and the other players here.

"I'm a big believer that you've got to earn people's respect and that's what I wanted to do."

Mission accomplished.

With a roster spot assured, Johnson probably will settle in as the third-line center -- behind Vinny Lecavalier and Brad Richards -- and should play 15-20 minutes per game this season.

"Ryan's probably been the most impressive forward," Ludzik said. "He's taken great strides in improving his defensive game. He's a smart player. I think he realized what he needed to do to stay on this hockey club. Guys like him will really help us."

A nagging biceps injury is not expected to keep him out of the season opener against the Islanders at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Ice Palace in Tampa.

"I want to contribute as much as I can with this team in many different ways," Johnson said. "I feel my strength is my speed and my ability to make things happen with it, and make the players around me better.

"Whether it's playing on an offensive line, defense, I think I've got the ability to play all types of roles. It's just a matter of what they ask me to do each game."

While he hasn't bought a house in Tampa -- a condominium is home -- Johnson insists he would like to stay put for a while.

No more trades.

"Ideally, if I could play the rest of my career here, I'd be an extremely happy man," he said. "That's a long ways down the road. I'm excited about coming here and plan on being a part of the Lightning for a long time."

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