Pesky center Luke Johnson helping Rockford roll through playoffs

With the Blackhawks and Bulls out of the playoffs, most Chicago sports fans have understandably turned their attention to the Boys of Summer.

But 65 miles west of Arlington Heights is a hockey team that is 1 victory away from advancing to the conference final of the Calder Cup playoffs - the Rockford IceHogs.

We've tried to keep your hockey juices flowing with more coverage of the Hawks' minor-league team, but one thing I also wanted to find out was this: Which unknown IceHog has the best chance to play every day in the NHL?

Incredibly (to me, anyway), coach Jeremy Colliton and veteran defenseman Cody Franson provided the same answer: Luke Johnson.

So who is this 23-year-old center and why should Hawks fans keep him on their radar? Let's find out.

Luke Johnson, a center for the Rockford IceHogs, had 13 goals and 17 assists for the Blackhawks' AHL club this season. Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs

What's the big deal?

Take a glance at Johnson's offensive numbers and your reaction might be: "Huh? Why are Franson and Colliton singling out someone with 21 goals and 26 assists in 146 AHL games?"

Well, offense is just one component of a center's game. The 6-foot, 192-pound Johnson is tenacious on the penalty kill and plays like an annoying little gnat all over the ice.

He showed as much during Rockford's Game 3 victory over Manitoba on Wednesday by relentlessly pressuring the puck during the Moose's first power-play opportunity.

"I pride myself in being hard to play against," Johnson said. "I can grow into that shutdown centerman at the next level, and that's what I'm going to have to do to get there."

So are we talking another Marcus Kruger here? Franson said that's not a bad comparison, but added Johnson's "skill set" may offer a bit more.

"He's a kid that can play on both sides of the puck with a skill set to put him on top lines," Franson said. "That's the makings of a high-quality prospect.

"He's one of those kids that possesses literally every tool that you need to move up."

Johnson said he tries to emulate Washington's T.J. Oshie and Boston's Patrice Bergeron, two players similar in size and stature.

"(Oshie's) got some skill, but he also plays that hard game and plays physical," Johnson said. "He's good defensively and a good two-way forward."

Rockford center Luke Johnson has been given more ice time and more responsibility under new coach Jeremy Colliton this season. Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs

Where he came from:

Johnson had skates on almost as soon as he could walk, which comes as no surprise considering his dad, Steve, played at North Dakota from 1984-88. Luke was coached by Steve in the USHL, then followed his father's footsteps and attended UND.

When North Dakota won the national championship in 2016, Luke and Steve were the first father-son duo to win an NCAA title at the same school.

"It's a pretty cool feat," Johnson said.

Johnson missed just one game during his collegiate career and, sadly, it was the title game against Quinnipiac. He had torn his MCL in a semifinal win over Denver.

"It was a tough pill to swallow, but I had fun watching and fun celebrating on the ice with all the boys," Johnson said. "It was one of my best memories in hockey."

Johnson scored 30 goals in 127 games at North Dakota, then signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Blackhawks on April 29, 2016. He has one more season remaining before he's a restricted free agent.

Much improved:

Colliton has given Johnson much more responsibility - and ice time - than he got last season under Ted Dent. That, coupled with returning this season in much better shape, has allowed Johnson to blossom into a better overall player.

"He's been productive, he's been on productive lines, he's played on the power play," Colliton said. "He won't be the one who's making the last pass, but he recovers pucks, he's not afraid to go to the net, he's done a good job killing penalties.

"He's got those ingredients. They've just got to flower even more."

If they do, he figures to challenge players such as David Kampf, Victor Ejdsell and others for a Blackhawks roster spot in September.

"I don't put a time frame on it," said Johnson, who scored 8 goals last season and upped that number to 13 this season. "Me and my dad always talk and (say), 'It's not where you are right now. It's where you end up.'

"I want to play as long as I can. Obviously this is a good development league. Every day you've just got to come to the rink wanting to get better and put in the work. Hopefully it pays off in the end."

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