Making his Columbus Blue Jackets debut last Wednesday, Kent Johnson saw his first performance overshadowed by former University of Michigan teammate Nick Blankenburg, who picked up his first NHL point. Surely, both players have been noticeable through their first four NHL games; Blankenburg surprisingly jumping right into a second pairing role on defense, and Johnson working his way up to the team’s de facto first line, in part due to injuries. But what has stood out to me is Kent Johnson’s skill. In fact, it seems like a breakout performance is imminent.
While his first two games will mostly be forgotten (Kent skated just 11:05 and 10:33), by the end of the team’s annual California swing, Johnson found himself slotted onto a line with the red hot Jack Roslovic, and veteran winger Oliver Bjorkstrand. His ice time rose to 14:32 in his third game against Anaheim, and then 16:24 in San Jose, where he picked up his first point – a secondary assist on a Roslovic goal early in the third period.
What stood out to me right away with Johnson is his ability to make a quick decision with the puck. Oftentimes, the puck is on and off of his stick before you even realize he touched it, something that seems to catch his line mates off guard when they are on the ice. One of the first things I look for in young players making the jump to a higher level is how quickly they adapt to the speed of the game. For Johnson, it seems the team is having a tough time adapting to his playmaking speed.
But over the last couple of games, and more so late in the San Jose game, he’s started to show a knack for slowing the play down and holding onto the puck for that extra second, freeing up time and space for the other players on the ice. Once he finds the right rhythm and some chemistry with other players on the team, I think we will start to see his passes find their mark more; and they are often made into dangerous areas.
While his vision is terrific, his skating and edgework have surprised me a little bit. He hasn’t been shy about turning his body to keep himself between the opposition and the puck, and he doesn’t lose speed in transition when making these moves. Once he adds some weight and strength (hopefully maintaining his skating ability), this will be an effective way to buy time for himself and his teammates, and allow him to make the skill plays he is clearly capable of making.
While I would like to see him shoot the puck more (he’s credited with only one shot on goal through his first four games); Johnson is clearly a pass-first player and is a desperately needed asset on a team heavy with shoot-first options such as Roslovic, Bjorkstrand, Patrik Laine, and Yegor Chinakhov. While it hasn’t clearly happened yet, I think it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the output expected from a guy picked 5th overall.