Adam Johnson hoping to make it big with Penguins
Hibbing is small city of just over 15,000 people in the northeastern corner of Minnesota, right in the state’s famed Iron Range.
It’s a modest place that was built up primarily on mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While iron ore is what Hibbing largely exists on, its most prominent exports are a wide range of celebrities from the worlds of entertainment and sports.
Famed folk singer Bob Dylan, home run king Roger Maris and basketball hall-of-famer (as well as occasional “Cheers” guest star) Kevin McHale were all raised in Hibbing, “way up by the Canadian border,” as Dylan once wrote.
So was Adam Johnson.
“Maybe I can be as big as them,” the Pittsburgh Penguins forward joked Thursday after practice in Cranberry.
Just being big would be an accomplishment for the compact Johnson, who is generously listed at 6-foot and 174 pounds.
“I get knocked off pucks a lot, and I’d like to fix that,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I need everything head to toe to get better. Just keep working on that.”
Despite those modest dimensions, Johnson hasn’t been afraid to put his body in dangerous situations, especially since he was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Oct. 9.
During a 2-1 home win against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 10, he raced after a puck in the offensive zone end boards and was blasted into the wall violently by Ducks defenseman Kobinian Holzer (6-3, 213 pounds). Saturday, during a 7-4 road win against the Minnesota Wild, he was clobbered by Wild forward Ryan Hartman (6-foot, 189 pounds) in the neutral zone.
“It’s because he’s so fast and so skilled, (opponents) try to take a piece of him,” said Lafferty, who tried to fight Hartman in response to the hit. “He’s normally very good at avoiding those.
Said Johnson, 25: “I’m not worried about getting hurt or anything. I just want to play hard and get to those areas. You can’t really think about that, or it’s going to hinder your game. It’s one thing I’ve got to work is just playing hard and taking those hits to make the plays. It’s been going good. Hopefully, it will keep going.”
Johnson hopes to continue his steady progression from undrafted free agent to NHL player. Signed out of Minnesota-Duluth during the 2017 offseason, Johnson was drawn by the Penguins’ success with signing undrafted college free agents and turning them into NHL contributors.
“(Conor) Sheary, Zach (Aston-Reese), (Carter) Rowney, a few other guys that started in Wilkes and just kind of worked their way up,” he said. “That was the track I was hoping to take.”
As a first-year professional with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2017-18, he appeared in 70 games and scored 31 points, including 11 goals. He boosted those totals during the 2018-19 campaign. Despite playing only 67 games, he put up 43 points, including 18 goals.
“The main thing that helped me improve was the confidence, just from the first year,” said Johnson, who recorded two assists in six NHL games last season. “I had a lot of ups and downs the first year, and once I took care of that and stayed a little more even-keel, I was more consistent and was able to produce more. That was the main thing.”
Also, he began shooting the puck differently.
“Over the past year, you see how his in-tight game has changed so much,” said backup goaltender Tristan Jarry, who regularly faced Johnson’s shots in practice the past two seasons. “You see he is able to raise the puck and get the puck up quick, and I think that helped him get a lot of goals last year. It’s something that he’s really focused on, and it’s something that will translate to this level.”
That translation was spelled out in Johnson’s first career goal during the second period of Saturday’s game in Minnesota. After Lafferty released a heavy wrister, Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk punched out a heavy rebound to the right of the cage to Johnson, whose speed allowed him to clean up the rebound.
“It seemed like every game (in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season), he was blowing past the (defense) and creating odd-man rushes or even breakaways for himself,” Lafferty said. “He just uses that speed and isn’t afraid to take it right to the net.”
Johnson, who has a goal and an assist in four games this season, estimated 20 to 30 friends and family made the roughly four-hour drive from Hibbing down State Highway 73 and Interstate 35 to St. Paul to watch him Saturday. When he scored, they sounded more like 200 to 300.
“I’m sure it was them making a lot of noise,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
If he wants to give Hibbing more to cheer about, he realizes his game requires further refinement.
“The main thing for me was just getting stronger in the offseason,” Johnson said. “Obviously, I haven’t put on a lot of weight. But the strength gets better and better. Shooting pucks and working on stuff after practice is the main thing.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .