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Kent Johnson deserves to be in the Blue Jackets’ opening night lineup

The case for playing the kid

NHL: SEP 28 Sabres at Blue Jackets Photo by Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, NHL teams must make their final cuts to reach the regular season limit of 23 players on the active roster. To prepare for this, on Sunday the Blue Jackets made a series of moves to get down to 26, and Aaron Portzline explains which three remaining moves can be made on Monday:

Sidenote: Emil Bemstrom was placed on waivers as part of the cuts. If he clears, he’ll be assigned to Cleveland. Some feel he’s good enough to get claimed; I suspect he’ll clear due to the large number of players on the wire at the moment, and due to his mostly unimpressive resume so far. I think he can have value as a bottom six winger based on the way his defensive game has developed, but a) that defensive game was lacking this preseason and b) his shooting ability has never materialized on a consistent basis in North America like it has in Europe. Circumstances outside of anyone’s control such as injuries and COVID interruptions have stunted his development, and in that time enough other players have passed him by. It’s hard to argue that he’s one of the 12 best (or even 14 best) forwards under contract at the moment.

Because Liam Foudy and Mathieu Olivier would also require waivers to be sent down and they were not placed on the wire on Sunday, it stands to reason that both have made the 23 man roster to start the season. Five players remain on the roster who are waiver-exempt: Yegor Chinakhov, Cole Sillinger, and Kent Johnson among forwards (plus the injured Luoto) and David Jiricek and Nick Blankenburg on defense. A 14F/7D split makes the most sense, with the young Jiricek being the last one cut. But there is still a chance that Kent Johnson could be the one heading up I-71.

The case for sending Kent Johnson to Cleveland

I’m going to outsource this argument to Mark Scheig, who made the case in a column on Saturday. The gist is that Johnson is seen as a long term center option for the Jackets, and could play top line minutes in that position for the Monsters. Too often prospects are forced into NHL roles out of necessity, and it’s not always the right decision for their development. Given the top-end forward depth, the Jackets can afford to be patient with such a valuable prospect as Johnson. Also, few expect this team to make the playoffs, so it’s not like Johnson moves the needle there in either direction.

The argument that gives me the most comfort is that Johnson could be joined by players of a similar talent level. Rather than playing with AHL/NHL tweeners like Tyler Angle, Brendan Gaunce, Trey Fix-Wolansky, Carson Meyer, etc. (no disrespect to those players, but they are fourth line NHLers at best), Johnson could be joined on his wing by Kirill Marchenko. Marchenko has pro experience and NHL-ready skills, but needs a bit more exposure to the North American game. The two teamed up in Traverse City and in some of the preseason game, so there is already chemistry there, which could serve them well in Columbus in the future.

Another asset in Cleveland is assistant coach Mark Letestu. He was a master of faceoffs when he played center, and that is the one aspect of the position where Johnson needs work. His offensive playmaking is already apparent, and his defensive zone play is much better than anyone would have expected (fewest shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, among CBJ forwards this preseason with at least 35 minutes).

The case for playing Kent Johnson in Columbus now

First, we must look at how top prospects have been handled in the Jarmo Kekalainen era. Starting with Ryan Murray in 2012 (a Scott Howson pick, but brought up to the NHL by Kekalainen), there have been eight players selected in the top half of the draft (#16 or higher). Not counting Johnson or Jiricek, five of the other six were NHL regulars (60+ games played) in the second season after their draft. (Sonny Milano was the exception, not playing more than half a season in the NHL until fourth post-draft season.)

Alexander Wennberg was a depth forward, but the others were key contributors: Ryan Murray was a top four defenseman, Zach Werenski was a top pair defenseman, Pierre-Luc Dubois became the top line center within a month of making his debut, while Cole Sillinger was a middle six center as an 18 year old (the only member of his draft class to spend the entire post-draft season in the NHL). Sure, depth chart deficiencies made it necessary to fill holes with those players, but each rose to the challenge.

In decades past, when the NHL was smaller, it was more common for prospects to spend years toiling in the minors, waiting for their shot. Now, the league features many more 18-20 year olds not just playing, but thriving. Those in the top ten in particular tend to have the skills to hang. There is also the salary cap to consider, where getting elite production from players on ELCs is extremely valuable.

For those worried about Johnson’s position, the Dubois case is a useful precedent. Dubois started his rookie season as a bottom six winger, but worked his way up the lineup and over to center. He did not need to go to Cleveland to reset. Now, he did have center experience in one and a half of his junior seasons, whereas Johnson played exclusively wing in his two NCAA seasons. It’s fun to go back and read what we wrote about PLD in his rookie season, both as a bottom six player in the first month, then at the bye week after he had been established as the 1C.

Another factor which greatly helped Dubois transition to 1C was getting to play with Artemi Panarin on one wing, and either Josh Anderson or Cam Atkinson on the other. Johnson could get the same support if he played between elite wingers such as Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, or even on a lower line with productive veterans like Jake Voracek and Gus Nyquist.

Finally, I believe Johnson has earned the chance to play in the top nine just based on his preseason performance. Again when looking at the 15 forwards with 35+ 5v5 minutes, Johnson has the following stats and ranks:

CF%: 60.18 (1st)
FF%: 61.29 (1st)
SF%: 60.27 (1st)
GF%: 50.00 (10th)
xGF%: 61.30 (3rd)
on-ice shooting %: 4.55 (12th)
on-ice save %: 93.10 (10th)
OZ starts/60: 9.47 (10th)
DZ starts/60: 2.84 (14th)

Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

Playing with Gaudreau and Laine in his first preseason game helped, but he had different, less talented linemates for his other games. He got way more offensive zone starts than defensive, but not as many offensive zone starts as others. Someone like Bemstrom actually got more offensive opportunities but still allowed more possession than Johnson did. Johnson was also a victim of puck luck on offense, and over a full season with some consistent lines he could see the actual production start to match the expected production.

So, where do you all fall on this debate? Will Johnson make the team today, and should he? Which linemates are the best fit for him? Should he start with Gaudreau/Laine, or on a lower line with veterans or fellow young players?