It was a strange sight, but there was a method to Kent Johnson‘s madness.
As the Blue Jackets rookie forward was getting in some extra work on the ice recently, he got down to ice level to get a puck’s eye view of things.
It’s a good idea, but head coach Brad Larsen admitted it’s not something he has seen very often.
“KJ was on the ice the other day looking at a puck, and the coaches are going, ‘What are you doing?'” Larsen said. “But he was looking at the angles of where the puck was going. I never would have thought to do that, right? But that’s where his mind goes, and that’s great. He’s thinking outside of the box and, ‘What does that look like from ice level?'”
It makes a ton of sense, though. When it comes to how much net is available for a puck to go in, what a player sees from six feet above ice level is quite different than what happens down at that much lower launch point. And for a creative player like Johnson, figuring that out could be the difference between scoring a highlight-reel goal and falling just short.
Video: CBJ@SEA: Johnson gets Blue Jackets on board in 2nd
“It’s funny that they noticed that,” Johnson said. “Obviously I wasn’t doing it for no reason. I thought it was good to see. I definitely got a different view and see what the puck is seeing down there. I was just thinking for when I pull the puck around the D-men, how much difference it makes when you pull the puck and change the angle. It was cool.”
Those are the kinds of little details that help make Johnson such a special player, something he’s starting to show on the score sheet on a more consistent basis. The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft has long been viewed as a special player with the puck on his stick, especially as he posted 101 points in 52 games his final season with Trail of the BCHL and then became one of the top scorers in the country with the University of Michigan.
And now in the NHL, Johnson is one of the most productive young players in the league. He currently sits tied for fifth among rookies with 10 goals and tied for fourth with 24 points, and Johnson has posted two goals and three assists for five points in his last five games.
“He has swagger,” Larsen said. “He wants the puck on his stick. That’s what I’ve noticed and what I like about him. He wants the puck. He’s not afraid to have it. He wants to make the next play, and he’s a confident kid.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise to see Johnson’s recent success because he was quite excited for the team’s recent trip to Western Canada and Seattle. A native of Vancouver, Johnson had the chance to return home to play the city’s Rogers Arena, where he grew up watching the Canucks, and also reconnect with friends and family throughout the trip.
He also scored his first-ever NHL overtime goal in Wednesday’s win over Edmonton, but there was a tinge of familiarity to it. The last time Johnson had played in Rogers Place, he scored the gold medal-winning goal for Canada at last August’s World Junior Championship, a memory that will last a lifetime.
This time around, the ice proved to be special yet again as Johnson’s OT tally gave the Blue Jackets a hard-fought, comeback win.
“Obviously that’s one of the best feelings, an OT winner, so that’s huge for us,” Johnson said. “I love (3-on-3). It’s the best.”
What was most impressive to Larsen, though, is how Johnson created the goal. When Johnson first got the puck in the offensive zone, he was alone as his teammates went for a line change, but he was able to hold possession and wait for reinforcements. From there, Johnson and Gaudreau exchanged passes before Johnson cut to the middle of the ice to get away from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and fired a shot that got past the glove of Stuart Skinner.
Video: CBJ@EDM: Johnson scores in OT to lift Blue Jackets
“Right before he scores, if you saw, we were changing and he’s in there in the zone with three (defenders),” Larsen said. “He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t throw it away. He was taking what was ahead of him. Great poise, and then the change happens and Johnny gets out, they work their magic. A little bit of a scissors play, and a great shot. For a young guy to have that kind of poise, that’s special. He’s growing with that. I think that’s what we’re seeing with him.”
Johnson has played both center and wing during his rookie season, with Larsen happy with the youngster’s play at both spots. For a player who is just 20 years old, there’s a lot to still learn, but it’s also becoming clear that he has the skill to be a major contributor for the Blue Jackets for years to come.
“He’s finding himself in the grind of the schedule,” Larsen said. “These are all things that are new to him, and all of our young guys, quite frankly. We’re in a four in six trip here on the West Coast, so you have time changes and travel. I think he’s used to a 38-game schedule or whatever it is in college, and we’re almost at 50. Those are things you just have to go through.
“I think he’s handled it very well. He prepares well. He goes on for extra. He’s always working at his game, so he has a real bright future.”