Since the end of last season, Stars coach Pete DeBoer has talked about a potential sophomore slump for Wyatt Johnston.

The versatile forward came in as one of the youngest players in Stars history at 19 and earned a spot on the NHL’s All-Rookie Team with 24 goals among 41 points while playing all 82 games. It was an impressive start, and created a high bar of expectations for Johnston.

Fast forward 10 months later and Johnston has 26 goals among 53 points in just 69 games. That’s a pretty solid sophomore season already, and he might have a lot more in the tank.

Johnston has arguably been the Stars’ best player since the All-Star Break. To go along with that, he has 10 points (7 goals, 3 assists) in the past six games.

Stars coach Pete DeBoer said Johnston, 20, and Thomas Harley, 22, were maybe the team’s two best players Saturday in a dominant 4-1 win over the Kings, and that’s important for the individual and the team.

“That’s a great sign, especially for this time of year,” DeBoer said. “Because this is the time of year when some young guys start to get worn down or pushed out a little bit. And I think those guys are finding another level for us, which is fantastic.”

All eyes were on Johnston from the start of preseason. One, the opposition was surely going to treat him differently after seeing what he could do in his rookie campaign. And two, he had to start dealing with heightened expectations from both inside and outside the dressing room. That can put a lot of pressure on a young player’s psyche, but DeBoer said he saw signs of Johnston’s mental strength in the offseason. After living at the home of teammate Joe Pavelski and his family, Johnston decided to run it back in a similar fashion his second season.

“He handled it really maturely over the summer,” DeBoer said. “He didn’t want to change a lot, he’s living with Joe again, so he didn’t have a whole bunch of new stuff. He had some bumps in the road, but the way he handled it, the maturity he handled it with, I was really impressed that it didn’t faze him.”

Johnston actually did endure a “sophomore slump” in the middle of the season. He had just five points in 14 games in December and went a stretch of 16 games without a goal. That could have easily unraveled into a much longer stretch, but Johnston fought through it and tallied 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in January.

“He didn’t wear it, he didn’t show frustration, he just kind of kept plugging away and worked his way out of it,” DeBoer said. “I think he’s playing at a really high level right now.”

Johnston gives a lot of credit to the coaching staff for allowing the occasional slump.

“The coaching staff has been awesome,” Johnston said. “If I’m not playing my best hockey, they’re not on me. I have to give credit to all of the people around me who have been really supportive.”

DeBoer, who is in his 16th season as an NHL head coach, said coaches work differently with the new generation of players.

“Breaking athletes down doesn’t work anymore,” DeBoer said. “They’re not wired for that, they’re not used to that. These athletes have never grown up with that. You have to find other ways. That doesn’t mean you can’t have hard conversations. It’s not all hugs and kisses and backslaps. We have hard, honest conversations with guys, but you can’t break them down. That just doesn’t work with today’s athletes.”

Johnston has 14 points (8 goals, 6 assists) in the 11 games that he has skated on a line with fellow 2021 draft pick Logan Stankoven. After an injury to Tyler Seguin, Stankoven was called up and the two displayed instant chemistry. As strange as it sounds, Johnston is taking a leadership role now in just his second season.

“They’re quite a pair,” DeBoer said. “They enjoy each other, they’re the same age, they’re both elite players. I’m excited for the fans of Dallas that they’re going to watch these two guys grow up and become what they’re going to become, which, to me, they’re both going to be stars. It’s great to have a front row seat to see that.”

The two typically take turns driving to the rink together and Stankoven said that Johnston has insisted that he has the wheel in recent games.

“He’s not changing anything that he does,” Stankoven said. “We usually take turns driving to the rink, and out of the blue I said it’s my day to drive, do you want me to drive. And he was like `No, I’m driving today.’ Because he’d scored every time. I’m sure we’ll have that same argument on Wednesday.”

The fact that Johnston has seen a jump in his performance since being paired with Stankoven is a great sign – and an interesting turn in Johnston’s story arch. After all, he has been taught by some of the best, so it’s not surprising he is returning the favor.

“I have to give a lot of credit to the people around me,” Johnston said, pointing out Pavelski and linemate Jamie Benn. “Obviously, living with Joe helps a ton. On the ice, that’s when I’m playing, but off the ice, that’s helped a ton being around him. And then playing with Benner pretty much the whole year, that’s been awesome.”

Now, with Stankoven, that’s just one more component that adds to the success.

“Obviously, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to him,” Johnston said. “He’s been awesome ever since he came up. I think our line as a whole, Stank and Benner have been really good over the last couple of weeks, they’ve helped me a ton. When we’re rolling, we can play with the puck a lot and generate a lot of chances.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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