We’ve talked at length about the lack of a true top line center on the Blue Jackets – it’s undoubtedly one of their biggest question marks heading into the season. While team captain Boone Jenner seemed likely to start the season in this role, our thought was that Cole Sillinger would eventually work into the spot, maybe by the end of the season. But with both players sitting out to nurse injuries, the door of opportunity opened, and in stepped top prospect Kent Johnson.
Johnson is one of the top forward prospects in all of hockey. We have all seen by now just how dynamic he can be with the puck on his stick; he’s a play driver who can hold onto the puck and set up teammates, or unleash a nasty shot that often fools a goaltender. But to this point in his career, through the NCAA level, World Juniors, World Championships, Olympics – even the NHL, he’s been making his mark from the left wing slot. Is he really ready to be a top line center?
The case against Kent Johnson as top line center…
First and foremost, he’s a 19 year old rookie entering the best league in the world. It’s exceedingly rare for teams to have a teenager on their top line, let alone as their center. In fact, this is a role typically filled only by the most elite, generational talent type players. Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby … these are the type of names you usually see, guys that teams tank entire seasons to try to have a shot at. Kent Johnson isn’t that type of player. He’s good, really good in fact, but I don’t see him as generational.
Secondly, he’s still growing into his frame. At 6-1 he has a good frame, but he’s lanky at under 170 pounds. Top line centers in the NHL typically draw the top players from the opposition, offensively and defensively. How would he match up against a team like Boston, when they’re rolling out maybe the best defensive forward in the history of the game, and some nasty bite on the wing and back end?
Finally, as mentioned early in the article … he hasn’t played center in years. It’s arguably the toughest position on the ice; you have to play in all four corners and do so consistently. Especially in a prime role, where you will face the hardest competition. That’s a lot to ask of a 19 year old coming out of college.
The case for Kent Johnson as top line center…
Early on in the preseason, he has looked really good between Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau. There is obvious chemistry between the three in the offensive zone, with passes being slung all over the place to open teammates. They were nothing short of electric in their first game action together, with Gaudreau leading the way with three assists.
Kent was good at both ends of the ice, even causing Laine to remark that if he plays on their line, he’ll win the Calder and the Selke this year. While the Selke is extremely unlikely, it’s easy to see Calder potential. Laine and Gaudreau should be one of the highest scoring winger tandems in the league; whichever center plays with them is going to see a big jump in their scoring output. Johnson is already an odds-on favorite to contend for the Calder this season. Would a 70-80 point season be reasonable between such talented scorers?
We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the Blue Jackets had some kind of center depth heading into the season. But they are already thin down the middle and with some key injuries, I think it’s entirely possible that Johnson not only plays center this year – but also finds himself in a key role. Whether or not that’s the best thing for his development is the big question. We have seen guys succeed before (think Pierre-Luc Dubois) … and guys fail before (Derrick Brassard, Gilbert Brule). I would hate to see Johnson’s development stunted because he’s thrust into a role he isn’t suited for quite yet, and for that reason, we should be leery of penciling him into the top line.
If any coaching and management staff is capable of making sure guys are prepared, it’s the group we have in Columbus. For this reason, I think it’s most likely that Kent starts the season in one of two places: in the middle six as a left wing; or in a depth role as a center. I think they will want him to play more than fourth line minutes, so personally I expect him to start the year as a wing, and maybe fill in down the middle as injuries or lineup changes occur.
Eventually, he may be a solution for the team down the middle, but with only 9 NHL games under his belt, I think it’s unfair to throw him into the fire right away.