Stephen Johns sidled over to the media area, ready to talk hockey and his fifth — yes, fifth— time at the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp.
“I’m a veteran now, I guess,” Johns said with a smile. “But it’s a great experience coming here every summer. Getting a little competitive in the summer isn’t a bad thing. Everyone’s itching to get back and start playing in the fall, but this is a little gear toward that.”
The defenseman doesn’t mind participating in the extra camps and taking the extra time to hone his game. It’s a big reason why he returned to Notre Dame last fall — well, that and to get his degree. Now graduated and a strong collegiate hockey career complete, Johns is ready to see what this fall may bring.
“It was a great experience, going back for my senior year and having the ability to be a captain and take on more of a leadership role. It was such an important season in my career and the program’s career,” he said. “I felt like I had a strong year and ended the year in Rockford, so I got some pro experience under my belt. Those guys took me in; it was an awesome experience. I’m just looking forward to this year.”
Johns had eight goals and 12 assists in 40 games with the Fighting Irish last season. He said his offense “took a big step,” as those chances he seemed to have plenty of finally started going in the net. As for the defensive side of his game, the four years of hockey helped Johns develop from a way-too-aggressive player to a smart one.
“My freshman year, I was really excited, trying to run around and kill anyone. I got myself in a lot of problems in the penalty box. Some of my teammates weren’t too happy with me, the coaches. They told me to rein it back, let the play and hits come to me and not go looking for it,” Johns said. “I really progressed in that area this year, and in Rockford even more.”
Johns didn’t spend a great deal of time in Rockford; again, just eight games. But the experience proved invaluable.
“It’s a lot different than college. It’s a job now. But as much as (it’s) a job, you still have to have fun with that. That’s what I learned from the veteran and some young guys there,” he said. “There’s a unique mix of guys. it was kind of a college team but you had the older guys like (Wade) Brookbank and (Jared) Nightingale helping you out, showing you the way and teaching you the little things. Those eight games were a great experience, and it’s only going to help me coming into this year.”
Johns would obviously love to find a spot on the Blackhawks’ roster this season, though it’s not going to be easy. General manager Stan Bowman loves to load up on defensemen — the Blackhawks have carried eight on the roster for most of the past two seasons — and there’s still plenty of depth there. Still, the Blackhawks are in a financial crunch entering the 2014-15 season, still more than $2 million over the $69 million salary cap; they have to get under the latter number by the start of the regular season. If a defenseman is moved, there could be a chance. And Johns would be happy to take advantage of it.
“Anyone would be lying to you and if they said they didn’t look at it and hope for an opportunity,” he said. “But you have to be opportunistic with every situation. When you have a chance you have to make the most of it. Hopefully that day comes but, until then, you have to keep working.”