Skill has never been the issue for Kent Johnson -- if you've seen him play, you know that's the case -- but size hasn't always come naturally for the talented forward.
The fifth overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft by the Blue Jackets, Johnson started playing hockey because of his older brother Kyle, but as he moved up the ranks, he was never the biggest player on the ice.
"I think I was always pretty good, but I was pretty small, too, in bantam and midget," Johnson told CBJ Radio's Dylan Tyrer on the Pipeline Podcast. "So there's a couple of years where I was definitely not one of the best players on the team, but as I got older it definitely started trending up.
"I think probably my first year of midget, I started to really realize (how good I was). I had a really good coach who helped instill a lot of confidence in me and he was really high on my game and just said if I put in the work that I could go far, so that was huge."
Obviously, that has proved to be true for the North Vancouver, B.C., native. After a dominating tenure with Trail of the BCHL, Johnson committed to play at the University of Michigan last year, turning in an impressive freshman season with 9-18-27 in 26 games.
Add it all up and the supremely skilled forward was thought to be one of the best players available in the draft, and the Blue Jackets wasted little time taking him in July's player selection event. And while many of the top players in his native country choose to play junior hockey in the Canadian Hockey League, a few factors led Johnson to Ann Arbor -- and kept him there this year.
Being a little bit of a late bloomer helped pave the way to college hockey, and the success of such college players as Cale Makar, Johnny Gaudreau and Quinn Hughes in the NHL certainly played a factor as well. And when four of the first five players taken in summer's draft also were Wolverines in defenseman Owen Power (Buffalo), center Matty Beniers (Seattle) and incoming defenseman Luke Hughes (New Jersey), the highly talented group of players decided to come back and enjoy a non-pandemic season of hockey in one of college hockey's great atmospheres in Yost Ice Arena.
"I think just Michigan hockey has a really great tradition, and obviously it had everything for me in terms of hockey development and it's a great school academically, too," Johnson said. "Obviously Yost is a great rink to play in.
"I think all three of us, that was mostly the plan (to come back) unless something really changed after the draft. I think it made sense for me and my development, and obviously it's just such an exciting opportunity at Michigan this year. We've all been loving it so far."
Video: Prospect Report: Kent Johnson
Johnson is still slight -- U-M lists him at 6-1, 165 -- but he said he worked on his strength and his skating this summer to get better. The results have been impressive, as he is tied for the national lead in college hockey with 20 points in 12 games, posting four goals and 16 assists for a Michigan team is 10-2-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
"I think just the game reps," Johnson said when asked how he's improved. "Obviously, I think my skating a lot this summer has helped me be more of a threat this year, and yeah, just playing my second year, just knowing college hockey better, I know how to contribute. Every little asset of my game is just getting a little bit better."
Johnson might very well be in Columbus by the end of the season depending on how far the Wolverines go, but he's part of a highly regarded youth movement that includes fellow CBJ 2021 first-round picks in Cole Sillinger and Wisconsin defenseman Corson Ceulemans.
"I've been trying to watch as many games as possible, and they have had a really good start," Johnson said of the Blue Jackets. "It's great to see. It's really cool to see Sillinger's success early on. He's obviously shocked a lot of people probably, but I can tell he's a great player just from playing with him at (Canada's World Juniors) camp."
Monsters Keep On Trucking
The top farm team of the Blue Jackets, the Cleveland Monsters, is off to a solid start at the AHL level with a 5-3-1-3 record that places the team fourth of seven teams in the North Division so far. Cleveland is coming off a split last weekend at Rochester, posting a 4-3 win Friday night before falling 4-0 on Saturday.
The good news? The Monsters have earned points in nine of 12 games thus far; the bad is that Cleveland had the full complement of two points in just five of them.
In Friday's win, the team thrice battled back from one-goal deficits. Tristan Mullin scored in the first period to make it 1-1, Brendan Gaunce tied the game at 2 in the third and Justin Danforth tallied to make it a 3-3 game with 8:28 left. From there, Powell native Carson Meyer tallied with 4:30 left for the winner, and Daniil Tarasov made 25 saves to seal the win.
On the year, second-year pro Tyler Angle leads the team with 10 points, all assists, while defenseman Jake Christiansen isn't far behind with a 3-6-9 line. Gaunce and Meyer are tied for the team lead with four goals, and Liam Foudy has three goals and three assists.
In net, Tarasov is 1-2-2 with a 3.74 GAA and .874 save percentage in his first full season thus far in North America, while veteran Jean-Francois Berube has a 2.09 GAA and .933 save percentage in six games.
The Monsters host Syracuse tonight and Friday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse before heading north of the border to take on Toronto on Sunday.
Blue Jackets draft pick Dmitri Voronkov had quite an honor this past weekend as he was the captain of the Russian national team at recent Euro Hockey Tour games held in Finland.
Voronkov, a 2019 fourth-round pick of the Jackets who plays for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL, finished the event with a flourish as well as the 21-year-old had two goals and an assist in a 5-2 win over the Czech Republic.
In recent years, Voronkov has become a fixture of the Russian national team -- first appearing at the World Juniors and then competing at the World Championships this summer -- and assumed more of a leadership role. This tournament, he was captain of a young squad that was named to gain players experience at the international level.
"I am really happy to have been named the team's captain, I think that I will cope with the responsibility," he said prior to the event. "I hadn't discussed this with anyone previously, I've only just found out that I will be the captain!"
At the same time, 2021 fifth-round pick Nikolai Makarov was also wearing the colors of Team Russia, competing at the U-18 Four Nations Tournament. The Russians won all three games, and the CSKA Moscow defenseman skated in all three.
- Ceulemans was on the receiving end of a hit Nov. 6 vs. rival Minnesota that left the Badgers defenseman unable to travel this past weekend for the team's series at Notre Dame. Ceulemans, who scored his first career college goal the night before in a win over the Golden Gophers, did return to practice this week, beat writer Todd Milewski reports.
- Meanwhile, it has been announced that 2020 third-round pick Samuel Knazko is headed to North America, going from the U-20 team of TPS in Finland to Seattle of the WHL. The 19-year-old Slovak was captain of his country's World Juniors team last year and likely will be again, and took part in the World Championships this past summer.
- 2021 fifth-round pick James Malatesta is off to a good start with Quebec of the QMJHL, as the feisty but skilled winger has nine goals and 14 points through 17 games.
- Stanislav Svozil, the Czech defenseman the Jackets took in the third round of the 2021 draft, recently notched his first career WHL goal while skating with Regina.