Exclusive Interview With Nick Johnson
The last time we spoke with Nick Johnson, he was finishing up at Dartmouth. Two years later, he’s scored an NHL goal and could play a vital role in the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins winger corps.
Jesse Marshall: First off, congratulations on a great year. It was good to see you in Pittsburgh. When the prospect camp roster came out this year, the first question a lot of people asked was where you were at. Was that a decision you had made, did the Penguins advise you that you didn’t have to come? What ended up happening with your summer?
Nick Johnson: It’s more just the situation. The way they do that is if you’re still on an entry level contract they make you go. So Dustin Jeffrey’s been with us for awhile, but he still has a year on his entry level contract so he had to go. I don’t know if they really want us going after that. Maybe they would like it, but no one really volunteers for that. I had no obligation to go, so I thought I could spend my time a little better with my training and doing stuff that I know what I’m doing. The camps are great, but you can only go to so many.
JM: You mentioned training. What have you been working on this offseason, specifically?
NJ: I’m working with the same trainer from back in Calgary. I’ve been working with him for awhile, about five years. He’s pretty thorough. He and Mike Kadar have a similar style, similar movements. It’s a lot of core work; squats, leg strength, core strength, a lot of balancing on a bosu ball. A lot of abs on the big swiss balls, a lot more core work. It really fires you up. Its long warm ups to get you going and specific jumps, hurdles, stuff like that. It’s not just pumping iron; it’s activating your whole body for every exercise. I’ve been doing that for awhile, just working on the core and trying to get stronger in specific areas.
JM: That’s one thing I wanted to ask you, watching you from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, you look a lot more explosive. Specifically this year at Wilkes-Barre, you showcased that dangle ability. When you talk about your offensive ability, talk about that stick handling and those end to end rushes. When you think of your own offensive weaponry, how much of that dangle ability and that stick handling do you work on work on. Is that something that has come natural?
NJ: I don’t think that’s a weapon that a lot of people have. At the NHL level, I wouldn’t say that it’s going to be one of my weapons. The defensemen are so good at handling a rush like that. When I get the puck on the wall, what I’m trying to do is to get speed as quick as I can and make a play. Usually by their blue line, their defense will have stepped up or will have done something. Sometimes I’ll try to make a move on him full speed and he will just guess wrong. He’ll expect to close me off on the boards and I’ll just jump to the middle and it will kind of work out, I’ll kind of be free. You do the one on one’s in practice and you’re obviously trying to beat the man, trying a new move, but it’s not something you really consciously think about; like tonight I’m going to try and dangle this guy. It just kind of happens. But it’s definitely one of the better feelings when it works out.
JM: Thinking back to that first goal when you got the call for Pittsburgh, did you have any family in attendance for that?
NJ: My girlfriend was there. She was in the 20th row or something like that. She took a lot of pictures. It was a good time. My parents weren’t able to make it out but she was there. Everyone was watching back home, my friends were watching back home. They were going nuts in a bar that was really quiet and everyone was looking at them like they were crazy. They explained that I’d just scored my first goal in the NHL and everyone was going nuts. It’s cool to hear some of those stories.
JM: Take us back to when you got that call. Where were you when you found out you were coming up?
NJ: I was in the car coming back from New York City from the all-star break. I was making my way back in the middle of the day. New York to Wilkes-Barre is about two hours and I was halfway through when Todd called me and gave me the good news. He was excited and obviously I was really excited. He said “You’re going to play the Washington Capitals tomorrow night.” It worked out well that I was on my way back. It gave me time to get my things together and get on the road. Dustin Jeffrey and I got called up on the same day.
JM: Noting this situation with the Pittsburgh roster and the need they might have for a young winger this year, what’s your expectation going into training camp?
NJ: It’s going to be a battle. I’m just going to go to camp as quick, lean, and fast as I can. Just play my game and just work has hard as I can. That’s pretty standard, but just be quick on the puck and make my presence felt every night. Just not take any games off during camp, practice or exhibition games, get to the net and score some goals. That’s what I’m trying to do and I’m confident that good things are going to happen this year. Whether that is making the team, getting in some games, or having a good year down in Wilkes-Barre, whatever the case, I’m going to have the chance to play for Pittsburgh this year.
JM: You spent a lot of time at the rink and at practice this last year. From a wingers perspective, is there a mental approach to playing with each of those big three centers? If you’re taking a shift with a Crosby or a Malkin, do those guys play so starkly different that you have to take a different mental approach to playing with each of them?
NJ: There shouldn’t be. You just want to play your game and make the plays that you see. It is a bit of a challenge to do that. One thing that Dan Bylsma told me before my first game was don’t think that I have to give the puck to Malkin all the time. He’s obviously amazing with the puck, but don’t think you have to give it to him every time he’s open, you can do things too. So that was actually kind of helpful, and he told me that before the game, I think that helped me a little bit to just relax. Obviously he’s a great player, but you can’t think he’s too amazing or you aren’t going to play your own game. Obviously adrenaline’s flowing; when you’re playing with a guy like that you want to play as hard as you can for him. You want to be giving him good looks and get him the puck, but you can’t over think that I guess.
JM: When people talk about this team, they talk about the locker room and Sidney Crosby being an ambassador. When you got the call up, did you have a similar experience?
NJ: A little bit. Obviously he has a presence about him; he’s Sidney Crosby. He’s great at being one of the guys. We were getting ready and taping our sticks in the room and he was talking to us, asking us where we’d been. He seemed like a good leader, like a good guy, a real good guy. He wasn’t overly talkative or anything, but he definitely was one of the more nice guys on the team and everyone was nice. It was kind of refreshing. He was just a good normal guy.
JM: I want to ask you specifically about two guys you spent some time with last year in Wilkes-Barre. First off, Brian Strait, a young defenseman everyone is excited about, and obviously Eric Tangradi. What were your impressions of them from your time in Wilkes-Barre?
NJ: They both came a long way. Strait had a really solid year, I think. He’s got really good fundamentals. He’s good on the puck, he has really quick feet, and he’s good defensively. He’s great at taking rushes. He just seems to have a body and a mind for the game. He’s really in there, he gets his nose dirty, and he was just great back there. And with Eric Tangradi, it’s kind of the same way, he gets to the. He’s a good player. I usually played with Letestu, and we usually had Dustin Jeffrey or Chris Connor with us, but when they put Tangradi with us something would happen. Obviously I didn’t get to play with him the whole time, but he seemed to, especially by the end of the season, he started making some really smart plays. He’s got good hockey sense, a good shot, and he gets to the net. He’ll be a good player for awhile.
JM: I’ve got a campaign going. Does Nick Johnson have a nickname in the locker room?
NJ: Not really, just “Johnny” I guess.
JM: Because we’re pushing for “the juice.” Nick “the juice” Johnson. Can you get on board with that?
NJ: I don’t mind that. I wouldn’t block that. That’s for sure. I guess I can’t really have a say in my own nickname.
JM: We just think it’s appropriate for you.
NJ: Yeah, I like that.
Thanks again to Nick Johnson for taking the time out to speak with us! Best of luck this year.