TORONTO – Aaron Johnson is not a big-name NHL player but it’s easy to spot him when he emerges from the dressing room in street clothes.
He’s the one with the big smile on his face.
If the league had an award for most happy-go-lucky player, Johnson would be a finalist if not the winner.
He wears No. 2 for the New York Islanders, who were to play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night, and he’s loving every minute of being part of it all.
“It’s the best,” he says of life in the big league.
The 24-year-old defenceman from Port Hawkesbury, N.S., has had his share of setbacks. There was a practice mishap last Nov. 6 when he ripped apart his right knee in a collision with Brendan Witt. He was on the shelf until the third week of January.
“It was tough,” he says. “It was a small problem that turned into a lot more than we expected.”
The only good thing about the injury was that he was able to spend Christmas back home with his parents. Jim and Carol Johnson operate a convenience store in the Port, a town of 4,000 on the southwestern end of Cape Breton.
The game against the Leafs was his sixth since rejoining the Islanders.
“It was a battle to try to get back into game shape and back into the lineup and to get going again,” he says. “Now I feel like it’s back to almost 100 per cent and I’m feeling good.”
His name has been added to the long list of players who wear a knee brace during practices and games.
The six-foot-one Nova Scotian was drafted 85th overall in 2001 by the Columbus Blue Jackets out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he was known as an offensive defenceman. He was good enough in his first pro season to play 29 NHL games.
“When we got him in Columbus, I didn’t know anything about the kid,” recalls Gerard Gallant, the former Blue Jackets coach who now is an assistant with the Islanders. “They said ‘He’s an offensive guy with great skating ability and puck-moving ability but he has trouble playing in his own defensive zone.’
“In the years since, he’s really improved in that area.”
Johnson spent the 2004-05 lockout season with the AHL farm team in Syracuse, N.Y., and appeared in 26 NHL games in 2005-2006. He was a full-time NHLer last season as he skated in 61 games and got three goals and seven assists, while becoming a more complete all-around player.
Looking for a chance to get more ice time, Johnson signed a one-year contract with the Islanders when he became a free agent last July.
With Witt, Chris Campoli and Bruno Gervais all injured, Johnson is being asked to play a more prominent blue-line role down the stretch.
“Definitely,” he replies when asked if more responsibility is to his liking. “I’m on a one-year contract in a new system.
“You just try to go out and play your game. Hopefully it all works out. It’s a tough part of the season right now. We’re all battling for playoff spots. That’s the main concern right now.”
Gallant can see the improvements in Johnson’s game from when they were in Columbus.
“He’s more aggressive now and more physical down low, but the big thing about him is that he used to get beat one-on-one a lot out of the corners, and now he contains guys more than trying to finish checks,” says Gallant. “He’s playing the defensive game a lot better now and that just comes from maturity.
“A lot of young defencemen come up and they have trouble with NHL players, as they should, but he’s learned and gained experience, and he’s doing a good job.”
Johnson amassed 66 points with Rimouski during one of his junior seasons. He can’t play that loose in head coach Ted Nolan’s tight-checking system, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“I enjoy playing a physical game so that’s never really been an issue,” he says of the need for defensive diligence. “It’s a little different than when you pile up points in a game.
“Obviously it doesn’t work that way in the NHL so you’re just trying to contribute as much as you can to help the team.”
Gallant loves Johnson’s attitude.
“Everybody’s pulling for him because he’s such a great kid,” says Gallant.
Johnson buttons up his overcoat before heading for the Air Canada Centre dressing room exit. He’s smiling again.
“He’s a beauty,” a bystander chirps.
“He’s a kid who comes to the rink every day smiling,” adds Gallant. “You can say that about a lot of them but this kid is truly happy to be at the rink every day, he’s happy to be in the NHL.
“He’s come a long way. He’s a great kid to be around.”
Nobody recognized Johnson as he walked to the team hotel, but they couldn’t help noticing his smile.