When the Columbus Blue Jackets made the first of their three choices in the first round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, I found myself skeptical once I heard the pick made: Kent Johnson.
After all, young Swede William Eklund—considered by many to be the most talented playmaker in the draft—was still on the board. But for the time being, it certainly looks like another coy draft steal for Jarmo Kekalainen and the CBJ scouting team.
Kent Johnson Goes From World Junior Championships to Olympic Stage
After being taken fifth overall, Johnson elected to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season, an obvious decision at this stage of his development. The Wolverines are stacked with high-end NHL prospects, perhaps more so than any team in NCAA history.
On a squad boasting Owen Power (first overall, BUF, 2021), Matt Beniers (second overall, SEA, 2021) and Luke Hughes (fourth overall, NJ, 2021), Johnson is honing his playmaking skills while having the luxury of a talented supporting cast. And on a team this top-heavy, he may very well be the most dynamic player of them all.
In his sophomore season, Johnson has already surpassed his freshman totals in assists (24) and points (30), while playing in three fewer games this season. He also made an appearance with Canada’s World Junior team, skating on the top line and posting one goal in their brief two games before the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
After returning from the World Juniors and continuing his stellar play at Michigan, Johnson was named to Canada’s Olympic Men’s hockey team. Originally listed as an alternate, Johnson was thrust into a third-line role as Daniel Carr could not take the ice due to a positive COVID test.
Once he got his chance to play, he made it impossible for the coaching staff to remove him from the lineup, as he was clearly one of the most gifted offensive players in the entire tournament.
Johnson went on to post one goal and five points, finishing in a three-way tie for second place on the team—all despite being one of the youngest players to suit up for the Canadians.
Kent Johnson is Special But Has Question Marks Too
What stands out most when you watch him, are his elite-level hands. He has a broad range and can receive the puck seamlessly, and is able to flip a quick pass, or turn and skate away with ease.
His vision is also excellent and he can often create offense from seemingly nothing, be it setting up teammates with a nifty pass, or stickhandling around a defender to open up space. While his shot won’t bring up visions of a future Patrik Laine, he chooses his spots well and has a good release, be it on the forehand or the backhand.
There are still two question marks in the forward’s development. Johnson is tall but quite lanky (listed on the UofM website at 6-1, 165 pounds), and it will be important for him to build strength and prepare his body for the rigors of an 82 game NHL season. The second question mark is whether or not he will be a center in the NHL.
It seems the Blue Jackets selected him with the idea that he will play as a pivot in the NHL, but thus far he is used almost exclusively on the wing, both at Michigan and on the international teams. With time, it will be interesting to see if his strength and two-way development get him to that level, or if he continues to play on the wing in the NHL.
Recently, The Hockey Writers listed Kent at #14 on their list of top-100 prospects, a ranking that will almost surely change after his play at the Olympics:
"The Blue Jackets used the fifth overall pick of this past draft to take the play-making center…. Johnson’s game looks effortless at times. That comes from his elite anticipation on the ice. It seems that he knows where his teammates and opponents will go before they do. As he improves his size, strength, and speed, he will be the complete package when it comes to an NHL center. – GB"
What’s Next for Kent Johnson and the Blue Jackets?
After the finish of the NCAA season, the Blue Jackets and Johnson will have a few choices to make with regards to his future. There is a chance he could be signed and placed onto the team’s roster by season’s end, which would certainly make those April games a lot more intriguing. After all, Columbus won’t be making the playoffs this year.
If he signs a pro contract, he will no longer be eligible to play in the NCAA. However, since he was not drafted out of the CHL, Johnson could be immediately assigned to the AHL if the team decides he needs more time to marinate. He has produced well in the NCAA and one could argue that he has little left to prove at that level. But, it would give him the opportunity to work on the other areas of his game, such as improving strength and two-way play.
My guess is that the Blue Jackets will want this player in their own hands soon, rather than later. His presence on the ice alone will help fill seats, and they could control his development and conditioning up close. Whether that happens to close out this season, or over the summer, is really the only question. I think we’ll see Johnson at Nationwide no later than this fall, and there will be plenty of buzz about him around the league in no time.
While this was no Pierre-Luc Dubois type of pick, it certainly wasn’t the one I was expecting. Johnson was rated by NHL’s Central Scouting as the No.3 North American prospect in the 2021 NHL Draft and basically went right in that range. For a team that selected Yegor Chinakhov 21st overall in the 2020 Draft, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, as Jarmo clearly has a tendency to find his guys, and stick with them.
So far it’s paying off, as Johnson’s stock continues to rise for the Blue Jackets.
It seems like a perfect fit, with Johnson being a dynamic playmaker, a pass-first option for the future to fit alongside shooters like Chinakhov and Cole Sillinger. The trending theme for this franchise and its draft picks—especially over the last handful of drafts—is that they trend upwards. When you get a No. 5 overall pick who trends this way, you come away with one of the top prospects in hockey.
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