August 28, 2015
TORONTO – The Marlies won’t be dressing Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren this upcoming season, but that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t see value in protecting its prospects.
Toronto put extra effort this off-season into adding young talent, whether through trades or AHL contracts, and Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas doesn’t want to see them pushed around – which is part of the reason the organization signed 34-year-old veteran Justin Johnson to beef up the lineup for 2015-16.
“On the ice, I saw last year a number of times as the year was winding down where teams in the American league would be targeting our skilled players and we’re a very young team, so to have Justin as a guy that can serve a presence and help out our young guys know how to go about their business on the ice is important,” said Dubas.
Johnson, who signed an AHL deal with Toronto in July, spent last season with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces – producing three goals, five points and 147 penalty minutes for his hometown team.
After turning pro in 2005, the Anchorage native transitioned from the ECHL to the AHL before finally making his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in 2014.
He started 2014 with New York’s AHL affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who at the time were coached by Toronto’s current director of player development Scott Pellerin.
“He’s played in the NHL, played in the American league and been a favourite of every one, coaches, trainers and so forth,” said Dubas. “I know sometimes it’s a struggle to see the value, but that’s fine.”
Johnson’s NHL exposure is minimal, suiting up in just two career games, but he made his experience memorable by taking down the league’s biggest skater John Scott in his only NHL regular-season fight. He’s battled some of hockey’s toughest players in his career, including five fights against McLaren in the AHL alone. And that doesn’t include this scuffle that took place in warm up prior to a game in the 2011-12 season.
Johnson, a six-foot-one 220-pound south paw, went undrafted after four seasons at the University of Anchorage – earning his spot on the team as a walk-on. He carved out a role in the pro leagues with his toughness and in 2008-09 had a career-high 31 fights and 259 penalty minutes with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
While on the ice Johnson will serve the role of protector, off the ice he will be expected to bring a professionalism the prospects can learn from. Dubas is confident that, despite Johnson having an enforcer label, he will add a veteran presence that a young team will need and feed off of.
“Number one he’s a great human being,” said Dubas. “Until you’re in it and living it and seeing it every day, his value to our team is the way he teaches the young guys to be pros. That’s a vital importance.”
*UPDATE: This article has been corrected. Original version had D.J King listed as Leafs assistant coach instead of D.J. Smith.