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'SUPER SKILL'

NHL Draft prospect Kent Johnson is an absolute wizard with the puck

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

It's like watching a video game.

A little CGI magic.

Surely, a 'cheat code' from EA's long-running NHL franchise, right?

Wrong.

What Kent Johnson can do with a puck is absolute madness. Few possess the physical tools to even TRY what he does - and yet, the North Vancouver native makes it look so easy.

"'Super skill' - that's what I like to say," praised Michigan linemate and fellow top prospect Matty Beniers. "He sees the ice so well.

"Really good stick stills, he can score goals, pass the puck…

"He does it all."

And has for some time.

Johnson made waves in the 2019-20 season when he led the BCHL with 41 goals and 101 points in only 52 games with the Trail Smoke Eaters. He was named the Canadian Junior Hockey League Top Forward of the Year for his efforts, and was primed to make a big splash in the playoffs, but COVID-19 had other ideas and forced the cancellation of the spring dance.

Even without that experience, though, his game had already out-grown the lower-tiered, Junior-A circuit.

When Johnson debuted at the University of Michigan this past fall, there was no dipping his toe in the water. He had a four-point game on Night 1 to lead the Wolverines past Arizona State, 8-1, before putting up points in each of his next three outings.

He was clearly ready for primetime.

"I definitely learned some things that I can improve on - (areas) that maybe I didn't see as much in the BCHL because I was dominating ever night there," Johnson said.

"Getting more explosive will certainly help.

"But it was good to see as well that a lot of my offensive instincts and my plays translated to creating offence in college."

 

Video: Draft-eligible Johnson is a wizard with the puck

 

Johnson finished the year three back of the team points lead with 27 (9G, 18A) in 26 games - out-scoring Beniers and 2020 first-round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, Brendan Brisson.

But it wasn't the number of points that got everyone's attention.

It was how.

As Michigan head coach Mel Pearson told NHL.com in December: "He's a kid you pay to see."

It's one thing to have the finesse and ingenuity to make the ankle-breaking plays possible. But to have the intelligence to read and react to what the defender is giving you, conceptualize your next move in real time and anticipate the next three or four events without skipping a beat?

That's in a class of its own.

Johnson is a human highlight reel. He routinely lures defenders into a false sense of security, before quickly accelerating and beating them wide. He loves the between-the-legs and behind-the-back plays, and has now made the Mike Legg-inspired, lacrosse-style 'Michigan' tuck look totally routine.

"I love watching (Patrick) Kane and (Elias) Pettersson," Johnson said of who inspires him. "They're so smart and they both make a ton of subtle plays.

"I know with Kane, he's really good at delaying when he enters the zone. He stops up and kind of pulls the defence toward him, so he can spot the late guy, or open guy."

Clearly, Johnson has applied those traits to his own game.

Brilliantly.

But he's also had to adapt to the structure of the defensive game at the NCAA level. He was the offensive sparkplug in Trail, earning the team scoring crown by a 33-point margin before leaving for Ann Arbor.

It was all so easy.

When he arrived at college and took a step back from the carefree, firewagon hockey he was used to, his 200-foot game saw the biggest improvement, thanks to a new role.

 

 

"I think for a lot of guys moving into the college level, you see them figure it out that they need to be good on both ends of the puck," Beniers said. "He was one of them.

"He was really good at that this year, going into corners, winning battles, playing defence. I think that gets overlooked a little bit. Being on his line this year and playing with him, he was great linemate and great teammate as well.

"There's a lot of upside with him and he's only (getting better)."

The 6-foot-1, 167-lb. forward is ranked third among North-American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. He's officially listed as a centre, but is comfortable at both positions - primarily playing left-wing with Beniers in the middle his past year at Michigan.

That, admittedly, took some getting used to after slotting at centre, exclusively, in Trail.

But like everything else about his freshman year, once he found that sliver of comfort, he never looked back.

"It's a different style of game in college," he said. "I think towards the end of the year, I was definitely picking my spots a little better, on when to slow down the game and when to play with more pace."

"I'm pretty confident with the way my training is going. It's an exciting group in Michigan and I think everybody is really excited to go for the national championship next year.

"Obviously, we'll see how my development goes.

"But I definitely feel confident that I can (play in the NHL) sooner rather than later."

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