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Column: Newcomer Tyler Johnson tells the unvarnished truth — that the Chicago Blackhawks need ‘to be a little more sandpaper’

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 19 days ago
Chicago Blackhawks players Lukas Reichel, left, and Tyler Johnson compete at training camp at Fifth Third Arena on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Players and coaches can say the right things about what it takes to win, espouse the right virtues, but sometimes it takes an outsider to cut straight to the heart of the matter.

For a moment Monday, Tyler Johnson was that outsider for the Chicago Blackhawks — or at least he was last season, when he was a member of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning — and his words felt like a shock to the system.

“Last year when we came in (and) we were playing Chicago, our main focus and talk was we know they have a lot of skill but maybe not necessarily the most gritty of teams,” the veteran forward said on Day 4 of Hawks training camp at Fifth Third Arena. “And this year you see some of these guys, that’s what the main focus has been.

“We have to be a little more sandpaper. Got to use the body more. The defense is bigger and stronger, and that’s going to be huge.”

Being gritty isn’t just about physical dominance but mental fortitude too.

The Hawks have known this truth about themselves since at least their 2020 playoff run in the Edmonton bubble, where they were pushed around by the Vegas Golden Knights and pushed out of the first round. They’ve been addressing it since with seemingly every other personnel decision they make.

For instance, paying a king’s ransom to Seth Jones signaled they’re moving away from the days of scheming ways to protect a smaller defenseman such as Adam Boqvist and instead hiring a 6-foot-4, 209-pound patroller who can make the other team’s skaters run for cover for a change.

And Jones isn’t the only one.

From veteran imports Jake McCabe and Jujhar Khaira to younger players Henrik Borgström, Reese Johnson and Jakub Pour, the Hawks have talked about the big bodies and tough guys on their camp roster. In fact, “physical” has been the buzzword of this year’s camp.

But there was something about the way Johnson put it, so candidly and with such clarity.

“There’s still tons of skill. Some of these young guys here are unbelievable,” Johnson said. “Still, you’ve got know how to use it, put it together and work it into a team.”

For all of the Hawks’ talent, they haven’t been seen as gritty around the league — and some of the more blunt players on opposing teams have said as much.

Last season, Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy called out his team for being “fragile.” That was a standout and necessary moment as well.

Recognizing that deficiency and transferring it to the ice are two different things. If talking about toughness could make you tougher, it would’ve happened already.

And it’s not like the Hawks don’t have individuals who can be or have tried to be physical. Simply bringing in new bodies doesn’t necessarily integrate grittiness into the culture either.

The goal is a culture like that of the Lightning, now back-to-back champions.

“Well, they went through that themselves, right?” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “They had a high-powered team offensively but couldn’t get it done in the playoffs for a couple of years when everyone expected (them to).

“They as a group decided they were going to play a little bit different, and now they have two Cups. So, yeah, that has an effect, (Johnson) coming in, and he’s been through that transformation and understands the payoff for it.”

Johnson said that process starts with “coaches demanding it” and permeates through pressure to perform at your teammates’ level.

“We learned (that) when you have guys who are going out and doing it every shift,” he said, “other guys who maybe weren’t doing it or didn’t want to do it, they have to because you can’t be left in the dust.

“That’s kind of the leadership of everyone, and even having (Jonathan) Toews back this year, the way he plays, I mean he’s 110% all the time.”

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