Kent Johnson’s NHL future may include his development into a skilled center who anchors one of the Blue Jackets’ top two lines for years.
If so, that could help solve one of Columbus’ glaring lineup issues, but Johnson’s best spot as a rookie forward appears to be on the wing. After a tough three-week stint at center while Boone Jenner was out with a fractured thumb, Johnson’s offensive engine is revving back up.
Playing right wing on Jenner’s line, he dished out three assists in the first four games after the captain’s return to the lineup, including a two-assist performance Saturday in a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks for his second multi-assist game of the season. Both were primary assists, the first coming on a goal by Jenner to tie the game and the second on Gustav Nyquist’s game-winner in the third period.
Going into a faceoff Monday at Calgary, Johnson’s scoring line for the season was eight goals, 13 assists and 21 points in 43 games – including 6-11-17 in 32 games as a winger. He put up 2-2-4 in 11 games at center, but only 1-0-1 during 5-on-5. Neither Johnson nor coach Brad Larsen had an explanation for the rookie’s drop in production playing the middle, but a 25.9% faceoff win percentage probably had something to do with it, limiting Johnson’s ice time and usage as Larsen opted for veterans Sean Kuraly or Jack Roslovic for key draws.
Larsen suspected fatigue from the “college wall” might’ve played a role in the dip, as Johnson has played more games in half an NHL season than he did in either of his two seasons at Michigan, but the 20-year-old forward disagreed.
“I like playing games,” Johnson said, “so it’s a lot more fun than practicing all the time. I think my body’s holding up well, and I don’t feel like the travel … I mean, you know, we get treated well. So, I don’t think it’s too hard or I’m having to find crazy energy for the games. I feel good to go right now, but there’s definitely a lot more games left.”
Johnson also couldn’t explain his drop in production at center, but according to Natural Stat Trick, aside from his drop in primary scoring stats (goals, assists and points), Johnson slid back in almost every measurable category at 5-on-5 as a center. That included Corsi percentage (attempted shots), shots on goal, goals for/against, scoring chances for/against, high-danger chances for/against and high-danger goals for/against.
“I know that maybe my numbers haven’t been as good at center, points-wise, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the position (itself),” Johnson said. “I feel that, obviously, because I’m not winning faceoffs, I’m not getting as much ice time, which makes sense. Maybe it’s something with that, but I feel like I certainly can create from the middle. I don’t think that’s an excuse.”
Johnson, the fifth pick in the 2021 NHL draft, also got a look in the middle at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September plus a couple of preseason games. He didn’t play center in college, but Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen drafted Johnson with the hope he might pan out in the middle, and that’s ultimately the young forward’s goal.
At the same time, Johnson was “excited” about Jenner’s return prompting a move back to the wing. After helping sink the Sharks, he was sixth among NHL rookies in points (21) and only six points back of the second spot following leader Matty Beniers of the Seattle Kraken, who centered Johnson’s line at Michigan for two years.
“If you look at a lot of leading scorers in the league, a lot of them are centers,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s a thing where I’ll put up less points as a center long-term. It is what it is right now. It happens. It’s just not burying your chances or whatever, so I’m not worried about it.”