Penguins' Johnson hopes to land on wing; prayer unlikely to be needed


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Tony Granato seems convinced.

He has seen too much, too often from Nick Johnson to believe that he won't be playing in the NHL this winter.

Granato just isn't certain exactly how many times Johnson will pull on a Penguins sweater in 2011-12. Or when it will happen for the first time.

"We know he's going to play games with us this year," said Granato, the assistant coach who oversees the Penguins forwards. "Whether it's the first one or the 15th ... he's a guy who can play in our league."

Johnson made his preseason debut in a 4-1 victory Thursday night against Chicago at Consol Energy Center. He logged 16 minutes, 56 seconds of ice time and was credited with four shots (tying for the team lead), a couple of hits and two third-period assists.

The first came when Johnson, set up directly in front of Chicago goalie Ray Emery, deflected a Tyler Kennedy shot off the goalpost, and Jordan Staal punched in the rebound at 1:58 to tie the score, 1-1.

"I definitely have to do more of that [going to the net]," Johnson said.

Johnson got No. 2 at 14:14, when he threw a puck toward the net from the right side, then watched as Deryk Engelland redirected it and Kennedy punched in the rebound.

"He's very smart on the [boards]," Staal said. "He makes solid passes, and he's obviously got a great shot. I like playing with him. Hopefully, he'll have, I'm sure, a good shot at making this team."

Before the game, coach Dan Bylsma described playing with Staal and Kennedy as "a pretty good opportunity" for Johnson to show what he can do.

Not that there's much Johnson can show that the Penguins decision-makers haven't seen.

Very little about his game is flashy; he's responsible and reliable, but rarely spectacular. Johnson is a better bet to knock you off your seat than to pull you out of it.

He skates well, goes up and down his wing like he means it and uses the combination of a 6 feet 1, 197-pound frame and good speed to be an effective forechecker.

"He's a guy who can skate, he's a bigger body, he can play a physical game, he can drive the net, he's got a good shot, a right-hand shot which he can score goals with," Bylsma said.

Johnson had a goal and two assists in four games with the Penguins last season, but missed the final 23 games of the regular season because of a concussion.

While there appear to be no lingering effects of that injury, the impression Johnson made on the coaching staff in his handful of NHL appearances in 2010-11 endured through the offseason.

"He did some really good things last year when he was up," Granato said.

Johnson did some pretty fair ones with the minor league team in Wilkes-Barre before he was brought up, too. When the Penguins recalled him Feb. 10, Johnson was the Baby Penguins leading goal-scorer with 20 and No. 2 point-producer with 39.

Whether Johnson can produce at something resembling that pace in the NHL is conjecture, but he doesn't think the transition should be that difficult.

"It's a different level," he said, "but it's not light-years."

Nonetheless, it has taken Johnson, 25, a few years to get into position to contend for an NHL job.

He was a third-round draft choice in 2004 and, after spending four years at Dartmouth, appeared in just 10 NHL games his first three-plus seasons as a pro.

There is no guarantee he'll be able to add to that total in the immediate future. Even if Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Dustin Jeffrey (knee) don't have medical clearance to return in time for the regular-season opener Oct. 6 in Vancouver, the Penguins have more NHL-caliber forwards in camp than will fit on the opening-night roster.

"Obviously, there's competition," Granato said. "And, obviously, it depends a bit on who's healthy on the first day of the season as well."

Johnson doesn't have any health concerns, and his confidence looks to be in pretty good shape, too. While he isn't house-hunting around here just yet, he certainly doesn't look out of place at this level.

"I feel good, and I'm ready to go," Johnson said. "I love being around here. ... I just have to get it done. Play hard and be an NHL player."

NOTES -- Matt Cooke also scored for the Penguins, while Michael Frolik got the Chicago goal. ... Crosby, recovering from a concussion, did not skate for the first time in six days, but only because players who did not dress for the game were given the day off. ... Veteran forward Jason Williams had been scheduled to play Thursday night, but aggravated a groin problem in the morning skate and was replaced by Colin McDonald. ... Defenseman Simon Despres, widely regarded as the Penguins' top prospect, topped a list of 13 players cut Thursday. He was sent to Wilkes-Barre, along with forwards Brandon DeFazio, Brian Gibbons, Ben Street, Paul Thompson and Geoff Walker, defensemen Alex Grant, Joey Mormina, Philip Samuelsson and Carl Sneep and goalie Patrick Killeen. Forwards Tom Kuhnhackl (Windsor) and Dominik Uher (Spokane) were returned to junior clubs.



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