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Should the Canucks draft Kent Johnson?

The dynamic playmaker looks to Elias Pettersson as an inspiration.
Meet the Freshmen_ Kent Johnson 0-24 screenshot
Kent Johnson as a freshman with the University of Michigan

In the midst of the Stanley Cup Final, it’s important to remember that the 2021 NHL Entry Draft is less than a month away. While the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens battle to win the Cup, the Vancouver Canucks are finalizing their draft list in hopes of finding players that can one day allow them to do the same. 

The Canucks’ prospect pool is shallow at centre, left wing, and right defence, so adding a top-tier prospect to one of those three positions would be ideal. Will the right player be available to the Canucks in the first round?

One of the most electric prospects in the draft happens to be from the Canucks’ backyard: Kent Johnson.

Johnson is ranked anywhere from 6th to 15th by the experts, putting him right in the Canucks’ range at ninth overall. He’s played at both centre and left wing, so he absolutely fills a need in the team’s prospect pool. Most importantly, he might be the best player available when it comes to the Canucks’ turn to pick.

TSN's Craig Button had the Canucks taking Johnson in his post-draft lottery mock draft, noting, "He's got a comparable style of play to Elias Pettersson — imaginative, creative, and even slightly built."

Let’s take a closer look at what makes Johnson such an exciting, dynamic player, but also at some of the weaknesses that might hold him back.

Kent Johnson by the numbers

At first glance, the numbers for Johnson are extremely good. As a 17 year old, Johnson led the BCHL in scoring with a whopping 41 goals and 101 points in 52 games in the 2019-20 season, more than twice as many points as the next best 17 year old. 

That’s similar production to Tyson Jost at 17 — Jost had 42 goals and 104 points in 48 games — but Jost was 7 months older than Johnson and in his draft year. Johnson still had another year of hockey ahead of him before he was drafted.

Johnson was lights-out in the 2020-21 season for the University of Michigan Wolverines. His 27 points in 26 games led all first-time draft-eligible players in the NCAA, including his teammate Matthew Beniers, who is vying for the first-overall pick with yet another Michigan teammate, Owen Power.

Jost again comes up as a comparable — he had 35 points in 33 games as a freshman at the University of Dakota — as does Johnny Gaudreau, who had 44 points in 44 games as an 18-year-old freshman at Boston College. That’s decent company to be in and, again, Jost and Gaudreau had their freshman NCAA seasons after being drafted.

The question for Johnson, however, is whether his point production in the NCAA was primarily his own doing or whether he was buoyed by his excellent teammates. Looking even slightly below the surface at the numbers, there are some causes for concern.

For instance, 14 of Johnson’s 27 points —  more than half — were secondary assists. Compare that to Beniers, who had just 5 secondary assists among his 24 points.

That’s not a deal-breaker, but it is something to be aware of when looking at his point totals. 

Johnson's highlight-reel skill

Beyond the numbers, Johnson is just plain fun to watch. He has superb puckhandling ability and he uses it in creative, eye-catching ways.

“He’s an artist with the puck and the ice is his canvas,” said Elite Prospect’s J.D. Burke in his profile of Johnson for their Draft Guide, where he’s ranked 10th overall. 

Johnson is exceptional with the puck on his stick, pulling off high-level moves while keeping his feet moving at all times, making him a nightmare for opposing defencemen off the rush. He executes dramatic spinorama moves with ease, but he’s also adept at smaller moves in traffic to create that extra bit of time and space to create a passing lane or give him room to skate the puck up ice.

“Kent Johnson is one of the most gifted, skilled, creative, and adventurous hockey players for his age that I think I may have ever seen,” said independent scout Will Scouch. “Pretty much everything about his skill level with his hands — it’s unpredictable, it’s smooth, it’s slippery, and above all, it’s creative.”

The trouble is that Johnson has a tendency towards trying to do too much with his hands, ignoring simpler and more effective plays. Multiple scouts have identified this as an issue for Johnson and he’ll need to learn to simplify his game at times and do better at identifying when it’s the right time to reach into his bag of tricks for a highlight-reel play.

“Johnson’s problem is that it sometimes seems as if he thinks that he’s going to break the game open on every puck touch, often missing passing options in far better spots in the process or just running out of space and turning the puck over,” said Burke.

Is Johnson a centre or a winger?

Some of his issues with playing to the outside and running out of space along the boards may stem from a change in position. Johnson was a centre in the BCHL, but primarily played at left wing with the University of Michigan, mainly so he could play on a line with Beniers. Some scouts project him as a winger in the NHL, while others think he could move back to centre.

Johnson spoke about the challenges from his shift to the wing back in January.

“At first, I just had to find a way to get the puck a bit more because obviously, a lot runs through the center a lot of the time,” said Johnson. “For me, just getting off the wall early when I do have the puck — at this level, I’m not the fastest guy yet so I can’t really just bust down the wall with speed, so I’ve gotta get off the wall so I can use my shiftiness and my IQ. Whenever I get the puck, I try to take a step to the middle now.”

Beyond the puckhandling, Johnson is an excellent passer, capable of exciting, against-the-grain and creative passes that can surprise the opposition. He can make absurd, between-the-legs passes look completely routine.

Passing is also an area where he could stand to simplify and make the easy play when it’s available instead of waiting for an ideal play that may never show up. His tendency to hang onto the puck too long instead of making the simple pass can lead to infuriating turnovers.

He also has a good, but not great shot, unless you’re referring to his backhand. Johnson possesses an absolutely devastating backhand that is rarely seen, even at the NHL level.

Johnson scored a lot more goals in the BCHL than he did in college, so there may be more of a goalscorer lurking under the surface of his playmaking.

Looking to Elias Pettersson for inspiration

Johnson names Elias Pettersson as a role model, which makes sense for someone Johnson’s size who grew up in BC. Similar to Pettersson, he’s not short at 6’1”, but is very lanky, weighing in at just 165 lbs. 

“He has a similar body type to me and it doesn't matter,” said Johnson. “He still wins a lot of battles, protects the puck and makes a lot of skilled plays.”

Johnson is adept at cycling the puck with his exceptional puck control, but he’ll need to get stronger and heavier if he wants to do the same at the NHL level. He names puck protection as one of the areas where his game grew the most over the last year, as he had to learn how to keep the puck away from the older, heavier players at the college level.

“At the end of the year, it was really tough to get the puck off me even though I was a younger guy and skinnier guy,” he said. “I used my body well to protect it."

Other question marks lie in his defensive game and his skating. Neither are terrible, by any means, but they’re also not a strength.

“Johnson’s defensive work rate often leaves a lot to be desired,” said Burke, while Bailey Johnson at Smaht Scouting was a little more positive, if not exactly giving him a ringing endorsement: “From a defensive standpoint, Johnson pretty much just does what he needs to do. He may not win any awards for his defensive play, but he’s not a liability in his own end.”

As for his skating, Johnson himself has identified it as an area where he needs to improve. He’s been working with Barb Aidelbaum, one of the most well-respected power-skating coaches in hockey, who has worked with several Canucks.

“She's been awesome for me,” said Johnson. “Just little things here and there about my form that, before I went to her, I didn't notice on my own. Mostly little things that once she points out it's like, 'Geez, I really didn't do that. Like, that's pretty easy to fix.' Stuff like that, she has a really good eye for.”

Is Johnson the right pick for the Canucks?

Overall, Johnson is one of the most intriguing prospects at the top of the draft. He has exceptional skill, mind-blowing creativity, and intriguing tools. He’s also a bit of a project, however, as he needs to learn how to leverage those fantastic tools to his advantage and stop overthinking every possession.

“When the problem-solving and handling combine with teammate usage, Johnson looks like a slam-dunk top-six forward,” said Mitch Brown in one of his game reports for Elite Prospects. The trouble is that those tools don't always come together. As Brown said in another game report, “There’s a tangled web of mechanical and decision-making issues that make his projection muddier than most.”

It feels almost impossible to project what Johnson will be at the NHL level. He has the pure skill and creativity to be a first-line forward in the NHL — perhaps even a game-breaking talent. At the same time, he will take patient development and carries a scary bust potential.

From a Canucks perspective, Johnson is very tempting. Whether he plays at centre or left wing in the NHL, he fills a need for the Canucks and his high-end skill would be a wonderful complement to the young players already on the team. Additionally, Johnson can spend a bit of time developing in the NCAA with Michigan before making the jump to the NHL, rather than playing limited minutes in a men's league in Europe or dominating a junior league.

“The idea of Kent Johnson at 9th overall, with the potential to hit his ceiling with the legitimate offensively talented youth in Vancouver is absolutely terrifying,” said Scouch.

Are the Canucks willing to take a chance on Johnson at ninth overall? Will he even make it past some of the teams drafting ahead of them similarly looking for game-breaking skill? That remains to be seen.