At the start of his first practice as Blue Jacket, Kent Johnson turned to cut the ice and found himself sliding through the neutral zone instead.
He got up with a smile and continued the drill as his new teammates tapped their sticks on the ice, but at that point it was fair to say there was a bit of nervousness in the offing. highly praised.
“Maybe a little nervous,” he said after his first NHL skate. “But yeah, everything was fine. It was really fun. Good training there, good to be comfortable there, and I felt better as the training continued for sure .”
As Johnson said, by the end of the hour-long practice, things had calmed down for the fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, who signed his first contract with CBJ on Friday after finishing his second season at the University of Michigan.
And with the Blue Jackets only having 12 available forwards on the roster, Johnson looks set to make his debut Wednesday against Montreal, although head coach Brad Larsen has yet to confirm that will be the case.
Larsen is no stranger to Johnson’s game, however, as he did what he could to watch Johnson – as well as his fellow CBJ signee Nick Blankenburg, the captain of UM – last year, when he was corn and blue. Johnson returned to Michigan to chase a national championship and continue to develop last year with the Wolverines, and given his draft level, he remained on Larsen’s radar despite how badly the head coach was busy with his own team.
“I’ve been getting reports and checking him in and texting him throughout the year to see how his season is going and to wish him luck and all those things,” Larsen said. “But I didn’t want to bother him too much. I watched some of the games at the end there, especially the (Frozen Four semi-final) and the game before because those are the important games. That are playoffs for them and as the scale increases, you want to see how they react.”
Johnson’s season so far has been filled with incredible experiences, but also disappointments. A Michigan team loaded with high NHL draft picks was the top seed in the NCAA tournament but missed out on a national title, losing a semifinal last Thursday to Denver in overtime.
Johnson has also worn the Team Canada maple leaf jersey twice, first at the World Juniors in December and then at the 2022 Beijing Olympics in February, but the under-20 competition was canceled in midterm due to COVID-19 concerns, then Canada failed. of a medal with a loss in the quarterfinals at the Olympics.
Through it all, though, the skill and flash that made Johnson such a high draft pick was evident. He was one of the leading scorers in NCAA hockey this season, posting an 8-29-37 line in 32 games with the Wolverines, and also had a 1-4-5 line to score a point per game at the Olympics.
“You can see it in games, his disappointment with the puck is unbelievable, the way he makes guys think he’s going one way and then he’s going a completely different way,” said Blankenburg, a defenseman who has seen many of Johnson’s game the past two years in Ann Arbor. “I think that’s his biggest thing is his deception in his skating and his shooting and his ability to shake guys off.
“He’s pretty strong with the puck, which for a guy who weighs 5-11, 165 or 170 pounds, it’s pretty hard to knock the puck down, which is pretty special. I’m thrilled to see him play at the next level and happy to be able to do it with him.”
Johnson admitted the past few days have been hectic, and that can likely be extended over the past few weeks and months given all the places the BC native has played hockey all over the world.
But he also used his diverse experiences in the hockey world playing against some of the best in his age group and in the world to prepare for the opportunity that now presents itself.
“I put in too much work last year to be the same player (I was before),” he said. “I definitely feel a lot better. I think I’ve learned something, just little things from different guys. I think a big one is just confidence – having confidence and believing in yourself is going to be huge.”
Johnson was drafted as a center and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he sees the striker as a pivot on the road, but he has mostly played on the wing for the past two years with Wolverines. It’s the main reason Larsen said Johnson will start his career on the left wing, and he skated in Monday’s practice on a line with center. Justin Danforth and right-winger Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Expectations are high on the road for someone who is seen as a unique talent, a playmaker with unparalleled creativity rather than a pure goalscorer. Johnson sees the game developing in a way that he can make unexpected attacking plays at the highest speed, and scouting services as well as his new general manager have been delighted with Johnson’s ability to make the sublime easier.
At first, however, Johnson just wants to get his feet wet and see what awaits him on his first foray into the game’s top tier.
“It’s really exciting,” he said. “Every time I’m off the ice I want it to be practice tomorrow already. It’s definitely a lot of fun and exciting.
“I just want to help the team win in any way I can, see what role I’m given in a game and do what I can with it.”