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Kent Johnson: 2021 NHL Draft Prospect Profile—High Skill, High Ceiling, High Draft Pick

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Johnson has the skill, the creativity, and the intelligence to make it big at any level of hockey—but does he have what it takes to be the Devils pick at number 4 overall?

NCAA Hockey: Big Ten Hockey Tournament-Michigan vs Ohio State South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

Who is he?

Kent Johnson is a member of the high talent University of Michigan Wolverines. Michigan was absolutely stacked with top-tier talents like Cam York and many players eligible for this years’ draft, including Owen Power, Matty Beniers, and this guy—Kent Johnson. What makes Johnson so special? He came in second on an absolutely stacked team in scoring, at just over a point per game with 9 goals and 18 assists in 26 games. He was also second in the entire Big 10 in rookie scoring and just third in the entire nation. Prior to playing for UMichigan, Johnson tore up the BCHL, leading the league in scoring with a whopping 101 points in 52 games. The lefty center is a bit on the skinny side at 6’1” and just 165lbs. Johnson’s hockey lineage is fairly short: He has an older brother who also plays college hockey for Yale, Kyle Johnson, though he was never drafted.

Where is he ranked?

Johnson is a little all over the rankings, as this year’s top ten is just so volatile that no one can agree on anything— in fact, they don’t even seem to agree on what they agree on most of the time— but one thing everyone can apparently agree on is that Kent Johnson will be a top ten pick:

What the experts have to say about him:

If you had to boil Kent Johnson down to just two words, it would be “highlight reel”.

But we don’t have to boil him down to two words, we can talk all we want, so here are a lot more words about him:

“With the puck on his stick, Johnson is a very dangerous player. He is a very good skater and can pick up speed in the neutral zone and attack open lanes with ease...Johnson is also responsible on the defensive side of the puck as well. He hustles back to help put his defenders when the puck transitions the other way and has good defensive positioning”- Mathieu Sheridan, The Hockey Writers

“Offensively, Johnson is creative and fearless. He will try a number of things that other players wouldn’t even dream of. This includes going for the “Michigan” or “Svechnikov” lacrosse-style goal, or going between his own legs to try and deke an opponent. He has high-end vision and can see the smallest of openings. Johnson is not afraid to try to pass through these tight passing lanes, or saucer it to a teammate. He extends plays, waiting for teammates to get open with his soft hands and puck control. He works the puck on the half-wall of the power play, quarterbacking things for his teammates. Johnson’s hands allow him to handle the puck and make plays while moving at top speed. He is dangerous off the rush and can beat defenders in one-on-one situations.” Ben Kerr, Last Word on Sports

“He is a shifty electrifying center who thinks the game at a high level. Johnson is usually always one of the most consistent players on the ice, showing off his flashy hands and playmaking abilities. This makes him very dangerous, but combining his offensive skills with strong fluid edgework and skating, he can carve the ice quickly, create space, and make the opposition hesitate.” -Clare McManus, Dobber Prospects

“Johnson may very well be the most skilled forward in the entire draft class...Although he’s gotten the most attention for his dangles, lacrosse goals, and spin-o-ramas, Johnson displays a strong effort of the puck and can do the heavy lifting during offensive-zone possessions....Johnson is an elusive east-west skater with above-average speed and exceptional close-quarter footwork and puck control. He’s a master stickhandler who can initiate, execute, and finish plays off the cycle or rush, and it was quite common to see Johnson spearheading lengthy offensive-zone possessions which lasted well over 90 seconds. He was in open ice quite a bit, and his quickness is driven more by a high motor and quick anticipation than blinding end-to-end speed. His stride is clean and he can outpace back pressure on his own, but Johnson is a highly-calculated puck carrier who knows when to accelerate and when to delay” - Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst

Highlights:

If you watch no other highlights, please watch the first goal on this video. It shows his ice vision, his speed, his puck handling skills to the point of ‘puck on a string”, and his scoring ability all in one clip. This is a quintessential Kent Johnson goal.

My Thoughts:

The most important thing to remember about Johnson is that despite his stats and his propensity to score highlight reel goals, he is not primarily a goal scorer. He is a playmaker, an architect with a flair for the dramatic and the ability to finish the play for himself if no one else is available. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have a shot— in fact, he has several. His slap shot is just as good as his wrister or his absolutely vicious backhand, but none of his shots is his first choice to use. He’d rather make the pass to set up the goal if he can. Fortunately, he’s also willing to take the shot when he has to, which sets him apart from many playmakers who try too hard to force the play rather than just taking the shot themselves.

The other reason you don’t find Johnson forcing the play is because he is really, really good at either finding the best opening, or creating one out of thin air. His ice vision is excellent and his creativity is just off the charts. If you think you’ve taken every opportunity away from him, you haven’t. He will find the one lane you never thought to seal off. This is partly what makes him so deadly in all situations— the BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters used him on both the penalty kill and power play for good reason. He put up 14 powerplay goals and a shorthanded goal in just 52 games in 2019-20. That’s what you get out of a player who can create plays out of any situation you put him in.

One thing you don’t get with Kent Johnson is power. He’s not an explosive skater, though he is fast, and he’s not at all big or strong for his size. He has the height, which means he has a framework to build on, but he’s definitely not ready to start pushing and shoving with NHL defensemen just yet. He has a tendency to struggle to win battles even at the NCAA level, which isn’t often a problem for someone adept at avoiding them entirely, but sometimes you just have to battle and Johnson isn’t quite ready for that yet.

Another thing you don’t get with Johnson, which is slightly related to the whole size issue, is you don’t get him immediately. It’s unlikely any team that drafts him will pull him right away to the majors. He’ll likely play at minimum another season with Michigan, up to potentially finishing his degree before being ready to move to the NHL. This has its pros and cons. Obviously you’re losing out on having an NHL ready player, but you do get a few years of free development on one of the most stacked non-NHL teams possible

So, should we pick him?

Kent Johnson will make a brilliant NHL forward some day. He has a high ceiling with fantastic finesse and intelligence, creativity for days, and a full repertoire of shots that make any time he has the puck on his stick more dangerous than a game of Russian Roulette. He’s as responsible in his defensive zone as he is filthy in the offensive zone. If you take him out of the prospect pool and just say hey, would you want this guy on your team? The answer would be a resounding YES from absolutely anyone who’s ever seen him play.

The problem is, we can’t take him out of the prospect pool here. We have to compare him to the other players available, which is difficult on a normal basis, but even more so on a year like this where there isn’t even a hint as to who is going to go when. As I’ve mentioned before, I think when you’re drafting in the top ten you are looking at need as much as you’re looking at the best player available. For a team that needs defense in a draft year where the top maybe 5 best players includes three or four defensemen, I think you want to draft one of those defensemen if you’re picking number 4. Let’s say all three of Power, Hughes, and Clarke are gone— you have Edvinsson, who many believe should be up there above Clarke and even Hughes, and then you have top forwards like Eklund, and Johnston’s teammate and dynamic duo partner at UMichigan, Matty Beniers. Is Johnston worth the pick over any of those options? If the top D are not gone, is he worth the pick over those?

In my opinion, as hard as it is to look away from a prospect as talented as Johnson and with a ceiling potentially as high as Johnson, I don’t think he’s the right player for us to take in this draft. That being said, I do think if we had to take a forward, he might actually be my number one in that category. This draft is a win-win situation for Devils fans, and while Johnson might not be my first pick, and I might question not picking a d-man, I sure as shooting won’t be upset to see Johnson wearing a Devils jersey on July 23rd.