How Stars stole wyatt johnston

FRISCO, Texas -- How did this happen? How did the Dallas Stars move down in the 2021 NHL Draft and steal center Wyatt Johnston with the No. 23 pick? How did that help them land defenseman Chris Tanev too?

It’s a fascinating story that involves the COVID-19 pandemic, the building where the Stars practice and Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who is now an assistant for the other team in the Western Conference Final, the Edmonton Oilers.

Johnston, who turned 21 on May 14, led the Stars with 32 goals in the regular season and leads them with seven goals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars and Oilers are tied 1-1 in the best-of-7 series after Dallas won 3-1 in Game 2 on Saturday.

“I could lie and say I knew he was going to do that from an early age,” Dallas director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell said Friday, laughing over the phone. “But that’s not the way it works. He’s exceeded [expectations] for sure.”

Johnston had 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in 53 games for Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League in 2019-20. Then the pandemic hit. The OHL didn’t play in 2020-21, which meant Johnston didn’t get to play junior hockey in his draft year.

The only hockey he got to play was for Canada in the 2021 IIHF U18 World Championship, which was held April 26-May 6 in Frisco and Plano, Texas. Johnston played seven games, the last three in Frisco at Comerica Center, the building where the Stars practice.

“It was in this rink here where we scouted Wyatt,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said Wednesday during a press conference in the concourse, with the seats and the ice in the background.

Johnston didn’t necessarily stand out. Canada won gold, led by forward Shane Wright, who had 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in five games, and Connor Bedard, who had 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in seven games. Johnston had four points (two goals, two assists) in seven games in a third-line, checking role.

But McDonnell had seen Johnston in Windsor in 2019-20, and so had Dallas amateur scout Jimmy Johnston.

“I sort of keyed in on him,” McDonnell said. “The hockey sense was off the charts, and you could just see he was capable of playing first-line center on that team. But it was just the coach, that’s where he put him, and he dealt with it, and he was really good.”

McDonnell did some digging.

“We just did a whole bunch of background checks with different people,” he said. “It was just, quality kid, quality individual, was brought up the right way. Parents obviously did a great job.”

For one of his background checks, McDonnell called Coffey.

He and Coffey were defense partners for Kitchener of the OHL in 1979-80. He played in the minors in the Edmonton organization while Coffey played for the Oilers from 1982-84, and they crossed paths with the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96, with Coffey as a player and he an amateur scout.

It just so happened that Coffey worked with Johnston with the Toronto Marlboros of the Greater Toronto Hockey League from 2018-19.

“I called him to get a little brief history on Wyatt from his coaching,” McDonnell said. “It was sort of funny. I hadn’t talked to Paul since he was in Detroit with us.”

The 2021 NHL Draft was held July 23-24, delayed a month and held virtually due to the pandemic. Johnston was not a hot prospect.

“Nobody was really talking about him for the draft or anything,” McDonnell said. “That’s where I said to Jim, ‘I think we can trade down maybe, and we can get him later in that first round.’”

The Stars had the No. 15 pick.

“I said, ‘Joe, are you sure? Are you sure this is your guy?’” Nill said. “Because we’re going off of limited information. And he was adamant, and his staff was, that this was the guy, and they made the decision and made the right call.”

The Stars traded the No. 15 pick to the Detroit Red Wings for the No. 23 pick, a second-round pick (No. 48) and a fifth-round pick (No. 138). They selected Johnston at No. 23. They took forward Logan Stankoven at No. 47 and defenseman Artem Grushnikov at No. 48.

Wyatt Johnston draft

Stankoven led the American Hockey League with 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 47 games with Texas before he was called up Feb. 24. He had 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 24 regular-season games and has six points (three goals, three assists) in 14 playoff games for Dallas.

Grushnikov was one of the assets the Stars traded to the Calgary Flames for Tanev on Feb. 28. Tanev has been a key addition to their defense.

“You get lucky sometimes, I guess,” McDonnell said.

Johnston blew up in 2021-22. He led the OHL in scoring in the regular season with 124 points (46 goals, 78 assists) in 68 games and the playoffs with 41 points (14 goals, 27 assists) in 25 games.

Afterward, Nill asked McDonnell if he thought Johnston could play in the NHL in 2022-23.

“I go, ‘I don’t think so, Jim. He’s got to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, he’s probably got to go back,’” McDonnell said. “Then the rest is history.”

The Stars decided to give Johnston a nine-game look to start last season. He scored in his NHL debut, a 4-1 win at the Nashville Predators. Games 4-7 of the season were at the Toronto Maple Leafs (Johnston’s hometown), Montreal Canadiens (a Mecca of hockey), Ottawa Senators (another Canadian market) and Boston Bruins (with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci at center). Nill said they knew it would be a good test.

The last two games were back to back. Johnston scored in a 4-2 loss to the Senators. Nill said he and coach Pete DeBoer talked about whether they should sit him out against the Bruins, because they were worried about how he would hold up. Well, they kept him in the lineup, and he had their only goal in a 3-1 loss.

“I remember talking to Pete afterwards and saying, ‘I think he’s going to stay,’” Nill said.

Johnston had 41 points (24 goals, 17 assists) in 82 games last season, tying for the NHL rookie lead in goals with Seattle Kraken forward Matty Beniers, and six points (four goals, two assists) in 19 games in the playoffs.

He had 65 points (32 goals, 33 assists) in 82 games this season and has 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 15 games in the playoffs.

“The coaches put him in a position to succeed,” McDonnell said. “That’s No. 1. They could see the hockey sense and the two-way attributes that he had and gave him every opportunity to succeed, and he did. So, you give the kid all the credit in the world.”