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Time at Worlds gives Johnson another chance to hone his game

After a late-season NHL debut, CBJ first-round pick continues to shine with Team Canada

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

To say Kent Johnson has followed a different path than many that came before him now seems like a bit of an understatement. 

The Blue Jackets forward spent this season with the University of Michigan then made his CBJ debut with nine games at the end of the campaign, two places that aren't that far apart as the crow flies up U.S. Route 23. 

But in between those games, he's been a globetrotter, wearing the maple leaf of Team Canada in international tournaments in his home country (IIHF World Junior Championships), China (Winter Olympic Games) and now Finland (IIHF World Championships).  

The 19-year-old wing also has scored in all three, making him the first Canadian and just the fourth player ever -- joining Finland's Saku Koivu, Russia's Evgeni Malkin and Finland's Eeli Tolvanen -- to earn goals at that trio of international tournaments in the same year. 

It's an impressive pedigree for an impressive player, but Johnson doesn't ever seem to let either accolades or the stages he's playing at get to him. 

"It was crazy," he said of his season before he left for the Worlds, "but I don't think it was mentally draining or anything. Every opportunity was really exciting. I didn't feel like I was looking forward to the end of the season. But definitely a weird year playing on four different teams." 

No matter where he was, though, Johnson showed why he was one of the top talents in the 2021 draft, eventually going fifth overall to the Blue Jackets when he was chosen last summer. The wildly talented forward was one of the top-scoring players in college hockey, notching an 8-29-37 line in 32 games with a Michigan team that was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Frozen Four.  

Johnson added three assists in his first nine NHL games, and he's made a habit of scoring in bunches while in the Team Canada sweater. So far in 11 games with the senior national team at the Olympics and at the Worlds -- games played against men, not to mention some of the top players in the world -- he has posted four points and six assists for 10 points.  

That includes a 3-2-5 line in six games so far at the Worlds, plus Monday's attempt at hitting the "Michigan" lacrosse-style goal in a game vs. Denmark that just missed the mark. 

Tweet from @IIHFHockey: Michigan (almost) in the house.🙃 @hockeycanada @19kjohnson @BlueJacketsNHL #CANDEN #IIHFWorlds pic.twitter.com/B47TwgDtjd

So far, those around the Blue Jackets team are impressed with what they have seen. 

"Obviously, his skill-set is tremendous," said fellow 2021 first-round pick and Worlds teammates Cole Sillinger. "You saw some of the plays he made. The one that stands out to me is that pass to Voracek (leading to a goal vs. Tampa Bay), just the poise he had. Faked it, faked it, faked it and then just slid it over to Jake and Jake had a wide-open net. Just plays like that.  

Video: TBL@CBJ: Voracek finishes Johnson feed for 6th goal

"Everyone's seen his college hockey highlights. He's a great player, great person. We're really good friends already. That's something that's important to me, the off-ice, and he'll be a really good player." 

Added head coach Brad Larsen late in the season: "Yeah, I think in every game since his first one, it's coming. You're seeing more plays. The one thing is things get on him quicker than what he's used to, I think. … He's starting to calm it down. He makes some really subtle plays there with the puck, and there's some other plays in the neutral zone it got on him quick, some turnovers and he doesn't get it off the wall. 

"This is all part of the learning process for him. That's why it's real good that he's here right now, to feel that." 

Indeed, the chance to experience NHL life might have been the biggest benefit for Johnson in his short turn as a Blue Jacket at the end of the season. It had to be a good thing for the British Columbia native to make his cameo with the big club simply to inform him what the coming down the pipe next season from just about every angle, from travel with the big club to what it's like on the ice on a nightly basis. 

"I think just getting better here and getting comfortable and growing my confidence," he said when asked what he took out of his NHL debut. "I think if I didn't have as many points as I maybe wanted to here, I think I feel more confident now than I did even before."  

So far Johnson has dominated just about every level he's played, including his final year of juniors when he had 101 points in 52 games in the BCHL as well as college, when he had a combined 64 points in 58 games with the Wolverines. 

Time will tell just how quickly he can make a similar impact at the NHL level, but now that he's made it to that level, he feels he'll be ready to go when he returns to Columbus in the fall.  

"I think it's a dream come true," he said of his debut. "Yeah, I think to get nine games under my belt, I think I felt pretty good, especially later on in those games, so it was huge coming into next year. 

"I think maybe 2-3 games in, I definitely felt like it was just hockey. It's obviously a better level but a lot of the plays I can make at the different levels can translate." 

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