The Calgary Flames drafted three players out of the United States at the 2018 NHL Draft – two from the United States Hockey League and one from high school. California kid Ryan Johnson could continue the Flames’ love affair with American prospects.
The son of former NHL winger Craig Johnson, Ryan was born in Irvine, California while his dad was playing for the Los Angeles Kings. The July 2001-born Johnson grew up to be a left shot defender and made his way to the USHL in 2018-19 after a handful of really impressive seasons with the Anaheim Jr. Ducks.
Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst had a detailed breakdown of Johnson’s game in a November mock draft:
A future Minnesota Gopher who patrols the blue like with confidence, poise and smarts, Johnson is the top defenseman on a talented Sioux Falls squad. The son of former NHLer Craig Johnson, Ryan is as steady as they come when it comes to draft-eligible rearguards, but he’s also also a weapon to into the power play and the attack at even strength. Blessed with nimble feet and quick lateral movement, Johnson covers ground in a hurry and effortlessly glides towards where he wants to get to. He’s a confident puck carrier who leaves pressure in the dust by using a lot of head fakes, pivots and quick changes of pace, but he also passes the puck with both accuracy and authority. Johnson is an excellent bank passer, and he must have a high success rate with his subtle leads that help teammates escape from the defensive zone. He’s a cerebral penalty killer with a quick stick who reacts accordingly and is able to equally distribute his attention to the points and both the weak or strong-side threats. Although he isn’t very physical, Johnson shuts down zone entry attempts by making timely step-ups and telegraphing an opponent’s intentions.
Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News had a slightly shorter rundown:
One of the top 2019 draft prospects from the USHL this season (non-NTDP, that is), Johnson continues to make plays at both ends of the ice for the Stampede as they get set to take on Chicago in the Clark Cup final. Johnson, a University of Minnesota commit, is a “one-man breakout” according to one scout.
The zone entry suppression and ability to generate defensive breakouts is huge and reflective of Johnson’s high hockey sense. His skating is strong and while he’s not a physical beast, he’s got enough smarts to know that he needs to rely on hockey sense, positioning and skating to defend – you could make a case that he’s TJ Brodie-esque in that regard.
Johnson made a big jump this past season, moving from the minor midget Tier 1 Elite Hockey League to the major junior USHL. After making the jump, he emerged as one of the most consistent two-way defenders in the circuit.
His offense was really solid – particularly relative to his age group – but not eye-popping. He had 25 points in 54 games. Among defensemen in his age group, he was tied for fifth in points and goals, tied for fourth in primary points, even strength points and primary points, and was tied for second in even strength goals. He was behind four defenders in terms of overall offensive production: Tri-City’s Zac Jones, Team USA’s Cam York, Central Illinois’ Ryan Siedem and Team USA’s Domenick Fensore.
Sioux Falls wasn’t a stacked team, but they managed to win the USHL’s Clark Cup with a team mentality. Johnson wasn’t the main driver of the team’s offense – he was tied for 13th on the team in points – but he definitely found ways to chip in.
Availability and fit
In the past, the Flames haven’t shied away from drafting the sons of former NHLers. The nice thing about them is that they know what the lifestyle is like and they know the potential pitfalls that young players have to avoid as they develop. He’s another up-and-coming American prospect from an increasingly potent talent pool, and one the Flames have frequently gone to in recent years.
A smart defender with great skating, strong two-way play and a “work-in-progress” offensive game sounds like a project that the Flames would be willing to take on. After all, they were more than willing to tackle Oliver Kylington’s development head-on and the big hole in his game was on the defensive side of things.
In terms of availability, the consensus is that Johnson will probably be available at 26th overall: ISS has him outside the first round, Dobber Prospects has him 33rd, the Draft Analyst/Sporting News has him 41st, my rankings at The Hockey Writers have him 45th, Sportsnet has him outside the first round, The Athletic has him 41st and outside the top 100, and The Hockey News has him 29th.
Johnson isn’t a sure thing – there might not be any at 26th overall – and there may be more showy or exciting players available, but he’s a promising young player who’s strong in the defensive and neutral zones and is making progress in the offensive zone.