Jack Johnson has experienced pretty much everything professional hockey has to offer.
Johnson has been traded, waived, scratched, signed to lucrative contract extensions, and then had those extensions bought out. He's been a top-two draft pick, a blue-chip prospect, a top-pair defender, a roster-bubble scrub, a salary dump, and everything in between.
You name it, Johnson has endured it. And now, nearing the end of his 16th NHL season, Johnson finds himself on the verge of perhaps the one thing he's yet to experience: Winning a Stanley Cup.
That fact alone is enough to make any hockey fan pause. It shouldn't have been possible, really.
That Johnson has managed to stick around long enough to even reach this point is something of a modern miracle, with the veteran defender being well past the point that many expected the sport to have phased him out, and yet continuing to pull down roster spots at the last minute year after year, fully accepting his role as a peripheral depth piece while serving as a bastion of knowledge in every room he enters.
That remarkable durability in the face of declining play and his constant shuttling from organization to organization of late has made Johnson somewhat of an urban legend in hockey circles. He exists, of course. So he's less of a myth than a folk hero. But his continued presence in the best league in the world has run the gauntlet from a subject of derision to worthy of celebration.
And how could you not root for the guy? There's something endearing about an older fella hanging on in a younger man's game. Especially when that old fella miraculously starts pulling his weight when fate thrusts him into action at the biggest possible moment.
In a perfect world, Johnson would have watched his Avalanche teammates book their ticket to the Cup Final from the press box. But when you make a plan, the Hockey Gods tend to laugh. And during Colorado's second-round series versus the St. Louis Blues, those gods started hootin' and hollerin', setting the stage for Johnson to go from the rafters to the lineup after defenseman Samuel Girard was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason with a broken sternum.
Losing a mobile, top-four defender at a crucial point in a Cup run would be a sucker punch to most teams. But Johnson's play, against all odds, has softened the blow, providing steady value in limited minutes to help keep the depth battle largely in Colorado's favor.
"It's been huge," said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar of Johnson's play ahead of Game 2 on Friday.
"We talked about our depth, and I look back to a couple of years ago when we've had really good teams and then we get into the playoffs and get an injury or two and we're calling up guys from the American League to play for us. But it's not the same as putting a guy in who's played 1,100 games, and a veteran guy who's been around for a long time and is a really good teammate and just a hungry player."
You don't stick around like Johnson has without a certain hunger. And, to his credit, he's been feasting ever since making his debut a few weeks ago.
Johnson has averaged roughly 12 minutes per night in the eight games he's suited up this postseason. He's not a vital piece, by any means. But over the course of a series, when teams become all-too-familiar with each other and the matchup battle gains extra importance, Johnson's ability to keep his head above water at even-strength in Girard's absence has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the later rounds.
"He's got that veteran presence where he doesn't really get phased by much," explained Josh Manson, who's been Johnson's defense partner on the Avs' second pair since Girard went down.
"He's got a really good attitude about him, and he keeps things light. But we can also have a good talk on the bench when we come back from each shift and we'll break things down when we need to or we'll know how we need to roll into the next one,"
"It's been good playing with him. He's a good veteran. He's been here a long time, and he knows how to have success"
That success has been coming in spades lately. When Johnson hops over the boards the ice miraculously tilts in Colorado's favor. The Avalanche have generated 50.88 percent of the expected goals and 55.07 percent of the available scoring chances at five-on-five during Johnson's roughly 85-minute usage sample, drawing even in basic goal differential and actually out-shooting their opponent by a 40-32 margin.
Show those numbers to any informed hockey fan a mere three or four months ago and they'd laugh in your face. But this just adds fuel to the fire that is Johnson's growing legend. The guy who was once a punchline league-wide is excruciatingly close to laughing all the way to a Cup.
And what a sight that would be if he got one.
"It would be special," said Manson of the thought of Johnson finally reaching hockey's highest mountaintop.
"There are a lot of guys on this team that you want to win for, and Jack is definitely one of them"
Cale Makar, who shares Johnson's status as a top-five draft pick and defensive prospect, couldn't agree more.
"Obviously, Jack being really consistent for us in the regular season and then kind of taking the role of next man up in the playoffs, he's been so good for us," the star defender explained.
"Just shutting down lines and everything. There's obviously a lot of work to be done before you get to that successful point, but they (Jack and Eric Johnson) have been so good for us, and that consistency is what you look for from each individual. And we've had that so far. So, it's been great"
Inching closer to his forties and clearly on the back-nine of a lengthy career, this very well may be Johnson's final run at a Stanley Cup. And for a player whose first act started so high, and whose middle featured so many crushing lows, riding off into the sunset after adjusting to stay in the game he's played his whole life would be nothing short of poetry.
The Legend of Jack Johnson is not quite done. But wouldn't it be nice to see a happy ending?