Johnson gets defensive
Bradey Johnson wasn’t sure what to think when the Niagara IceDogs asked him to move to defence.
The 18-year-old Lindsay native was off to a solid start with three goals in his role as a third-line centre, but when the IceDogs were hit with a spate of injuries on the blueline, they needed another defenceman quickly.
“Mixed emotions, to be honest,” Johnson smiled, when asked for his first reaction to the news. “I was kind of excited and nervous a bit because I didn’t know what to expect.
“The first couple of shifts were a little scary back there because I’m the last guy between me and the puck carrier. It was a pretty slow start for me but now I feel more comfortable.”
Johnson made his Ontario Hockey League debut on defence Oct. 5 versus Mississauga after Elijah Roberts went down in a game the previous night versus Sudbury.
With Liam Ham and Drew Hunter already sidelined and no chance to practice, Johnson was paired with veteran Johnathon Schaefer and more than held his own.
“I just think with having the three older guys out of the lineup we didn’t think it would be fair to call someone up,” IceDogs coach Billy Burke explained. “We needed an older guy. We thought of Akil (Thomas) or (Ben) Jones could have possibly done it, but then you weaken your top two lines. We wanted to keep our top two centremen.
“Bradey is very responsible in the D zone. He’s smart, he’s a good skater, he’s fearless and plays hard. He just seemed like the guy to try to do it with.”
Burke was immediately impressed with Johnson.
“He’s looking natural. He’s looked more natural every game,” Burke said. “We just gave him a chalk talk. For a defenceman and a centre in the D zone, it’s very similar anyway. He was comfortable with that but not so much handing guys off the rush, but now he’s settled in.”
Johnson gives props to Schaefer for helping him with the transition.
“I feel great having him back there because he’s always back and he’s talking to me,” said Johnson, a former member of the Welland Junior Canadians. “When I’m back there, it’s kind of hard for me to read it because as a defenceman it’s a lot different how to read a play and know where to put the puck.
“We help each other out and he helps me on the bench talking to me.”
Johnson has benefitted from not trying to do too much as he learns the position.
“I’m just trying to make plays and get the puck out every time,” he said. “We played against the top line in Barrie and were the shutdown pair and tried to keep it simple.”
Johnson said it can be unnerving for a player with his lack of experience on the blueline having a sniper swooping down his side of the ice.
“It’s challenging to gap up on a player. I found that the hardest,” he said. “I never got beat completely but I could have done a better job. I’m trying to watch the other D in practice and see how they do things.”
Johnson is expected to return to centre once the injured players return, but his willingness and ability to shift positions are nothing but a positive to both himself and the team.
“I think it was a good idea,” he said. “I handled it well. It shows my hockey IQ and how I can play different positions and handle the pressure.”
Burke didn’t think the IceDogs would be in such a pinch, given their defensive depth.
“It’s crazy how fast things can change with injuries and suspensions,” he said. “You can go weeks and weeks with nothing and then over the course of weekend lose potentially three guys.
“It wasn’t ideal but the guys have stepped up and responded well to the increased roles.”
Ham skated Tuesday and could play Wednesday in Erie while Hunter also practised but is still aways away from returning. Roberts is expected back next week.
The IceDogs, 6-2-2, are home to Ottawa Thursday and Windsor Friday as well this week.
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