VOORHEES, N.J. – It was just two months ago that Andrew Johnston was sulking around Humboldt, Saskatchewan.
There he was, the leading scorer for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, having just had a whale of a postseason, letting his team’s loss in the semifinals of the RBC Cup on home ice to the Woodstock Slammers eat away at him.
After a full season, to get so close to a championship only to lose by one goal on home ice has its way of gnawing at you, but Johnston had some things in which to take solace.
First and foremost, he did everything possible to carry his Broncos as far as he did, with 29 goals and 52 assists for 81 points in 58 games in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. He followed that up with 10 goals and four assists for 14 points in 16 playoff games, including those in the RBC Cup – which pits the top Canadian Junior A Hockey teams against one another.
And then there was the fact that he was slated to head off to college in August, with practically a free education.
The book-wormish Johnston, who had a nice 1800 SAT score, was headed to Union College in New York, a school that saw a combination of athletic talent and smarts that was too good to pass up, and offered him a nice financial incentive package. And that’s where Johnston planned to be this fall, unless something unexpected came along.
Two weeks later, he knew that his summer and fall would be spent nowhere near Humboldt nor Union College.
That’s because the Flyers came calling – with a professional contract offer that really blew him out of the water.
“That was the first time I smiled in nine days,” Johnston said of the day he agreed to sign with Philadelphia.
It’s not every day that undrafted free agents get big money thrown at them by an NHL team, nor is it every day that a player from the SJHL even gets a good look from NHL teams – after all most of the players in the SJHL are there because they weren’t drafted by a major junior hockey team.
Couple that with the fact that Johnston, who just turned 21, was an overage player, and the odds of getting a big pro contract thrown his way seemed remote.
But, what is often forgotten with Johnston was that he could have signed with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL, but didn’t because he wanted to keep his NCAA eligibility intact.
So, when Flyers’ scout, and former player, Mark Greig went to see him play in the RBC Cup, he knew right away that Johnston was a guy the Flyers should look into.
“He jumped right out to Mark,” said Chris Pryor, the Flyers Director of Hockey Operations who is in charge of scouting. “He saw something there that we would want to grab on to and did a good job of relaying that to everyone here and Paul (Holmgren) made it happen and here he is.”
His agent Jeff Helperl, told Canadian reporters that the offer made by the Flyers was akin to what first round picks get on their entry-level deals in the NHL.
And while the Flyers don’t announce the terms of their contracts publicly, the deal was reportedly for three years and worth $2,377,500 if he makes it to the NHL.
And according to Helperl, the offer included a maximum signing bonus.
“It was an unbelievable offer,” said Johnston. “I knew there were a few NHL teams interested, but I was still intending to go to Union. The only way I would back out would be for the perfect situation and the Flyers kind of surprised me and made the perfect pitch.”
The Flyers have had some success in recent seasons finding organizational depth in the undrafted free agent ranks, with the occasional diamond in the rough making it to the NHL – guys like Darroll Powe and Matt Read in recent seasons.
But some would say that trying to strike gold with a player from the SJHL is like mining in infertile territory.
But, it should be noted that several NHL players from last season came through the SJHL ranks including recent Flyers free agent signing Ruslan Fedotenko as well as players like Brad Richards, Willie Mitchell and Ted Purcell, among others.
The Flyers are giving Johnston a good, long look at Development Camp, which ended with an inter-squad scrimmage today, and expect Johnston to have people take notice of him once training camp begins in September.
It’ll be helpful for Johnston to see a couple familiar faces in that camp since he played midget hockey with Brayden Schenn and played against Sean Couturier. But he did admit that he might find himself holding his breath a little bit too.
“I don’t know, I’m sure I’ll feel a little nervous when I’m on the same ice as (Danny) Briere and those guys, but I know I have an opportunity here too and I want to make sure I take advantage of it.”
Just like the Flyers hope they took advantage of the rest of the league by finding an NHL-caliber player in an unusual place.
To reach Anthony J. SanFilippo email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37