When a player makes his NHL debut, it’s not uncommon to hear him talk about the speed of the game. Whether that’s pure skating or the movement of the puck, for skaters or goaltenders, it’s almost always an adjustment.
Forward Adam Johnson was expecting something a little different entering his NHL debut on Thursday against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.
Playing a fast game is no issue for the 6-foot, 175-pound native of Hibbing, Minn. He’s a terrific skater. The bigger adjustment will be the physicality of the NHL game and how Johnson is able to adapt.
“Obviously guys are big and strong in the AHL as well, but probably a little bit more so here,” Johnson said after morning skate. “I think I’ll be able to handle it.”
Johnson is certainly more than ready to give it a try. He was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Wednesday after Joseph Blandisi gave them next to nothing in that role.
It follows a solid stretch of play for Johnson, who was second on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in points with 40, including 18 goals, at the time of his call-up.
In the past 11 games, Johnson has had at least a point eight times while totaling four goals and nine points during that stretch.
“Just really exciting,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long time [coming]. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life. I’m pumped to be here. I hope to contribute any way I can.”
The Penguins signed Johnson as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth on July 6, 2017, a couple days after he impressed management at that summer’s development camp.
In his first pro season, Johnson had 31 points in 70 games, although he struggled — as most do — with consistency.
That seems to be behind Johnson now, as he’s challenging for an important role with the NHL club in the middle of a playoff push. The fourth line did not have a goal in 19 games before Thursday and could use an injection of offense.
“He’s a guy that can help our overall team speed,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s really good on the forecheck. We know he’ll bring a lot of energy.
“He has good offensive instincts. 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 said he would have around a half-dozen people, maybe a few more, in the stands Thursday — his parents, brother and a few friends.
At morning skate, Johnson worked alongside Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson, on the Penguins’ fourth line, although Johnson doesn’t think it’ll be too tough of a transition from the scoring role he occupied in the AHL.
“It’s one that I’m comfortable making,” Johnson said. “As long as I can help the team to win here, I’d love to do it.”
With the Penguins squarely in playoff-push mode, there’s a couple ways of looking at this.
On one hand, Johnson did get nearly two complete full seasons to develop. On the other, he’s being thrust into a huge situation — the team in desperate need of points, on the road, against one of the Western Conference’s big boys.
“It’s kind of a unique time,” Johnson said. “They’re in a good playoff push here. I hope I can jump in, try to help with that push, move up the standings and do what I can.”