A player making his NHL debut this late in the season often means it is with a team out of the playoff chase and looking toward the future. That’s not the case with Adam Johnson, who was recalled Wednesday by the Pittsburgh Penguins and is expected to play his first NHL game Thursday against the Predators in Nashville.
In fact, both teams are clawing for the best possible playoff spot.
“It’s kind of a unique time,” Johnson said after participating with the Penguins in their morning skate. “They’re in a good playoff push here. I hope I can jump in and try to help with that push and move up the standings. I’ll do what I can.”
Johnson skated on the right wing on the fourth line, with center Matt Cullen and left winger Garrett Wilson in the morning, according to the Penguins website.
Johnson, 24, was signed as an undrafted free agent after two college seasons at Minnesota-Duluth and was in his second season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League when he got the promotion.
Asked about the expectations for Johnson against Nashville, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said:
“We think he’s a guy that can help our overall team speed. He’s good on the forecheck. We know he’ll bring a lot of energy in his first NHL game.
“I know he’s excited to play, but he’s played extremely well for Wilkes-Barre. He has good offensive instincts. I think he can help us in a lot of ways. He’s a good penalty-killer. There’s a number of different ways we can utilize him. But I think one of his biggest strengths is his speed.”
Johnson is a replacement for another call-up who was given a shot, Joseph Blandisi, who was returned to WBS. The Penguins are without injured forwards Evgeni Malkin and Zach Aston-Reese.
In 63 games with WBS, Johnson had 18 goals, 40 points, including points in eight of his past 11 games.
He agreed with Sullivan that is his gig is speed.
“That’s probably my biggest asset, is my speed,” he said. “I hope that translates well. Just try to play a solid defensive game, solid 200-foot game and do what I can to contribute.”
One of the lingering concerns over Johnson is his size, 6 feet, 175 pounds, and whether that will leave him vulnerable in the NHL. He shares that concern, to an extent.
“I think that’s going to be an adjustment,” he said. “Obviously, guys are big and strong in the AHL as well, but probably a little more so here. It’s obviously going to be an adjustment, but I think I’ll be able to handle it all right.”
Like a lot of newbies, Johnson will be going from a role on a scoring line in the minor leagues to the fourth line in the NHL. Although the Penguins could use some offense from the fourth line, that won’t be Johnson’s primary responsibility. He’s fine with that.
“It’s (a transition) that I’m comfortable to make,” Johnson said. “Just as long as I can help the team win here, I’d love to do it. Whatever I have to do to help them win, I’m all for it.
“I had all last year and then most of this year, so I had plenty of time in the AHL to develop. I’m hoping the game will translate well here.”
Johnson said his parents, brother and some friends traveled to Nashville to watch his debut.
“Just really excited. It’s been a long-time wait,” he said. “This is what I’ve been working for my whole life. I’m pumped to be here. I just hope to contribute any way I can.”