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Photo Credit: Michael Caterina-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Flames First Round Targets: Kent Johnson

The first round of the 2021 NHL Draft will take place on July 23. Following the results of the draft lottery, the Flames hold the 12th overall selection and will have a chance to add a high-end prospect to their organization

Today, we examine the possible perks presented by Kent Johnson, a contender for having the most gifted set of mitts in the entire draft class.

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Scouting report

Hailing from Port Moody, B.C., Johnson established himself as an eating and breathing highlight reel first as a force in the BCHL and then as a freshman for Michigan in the NCAA this past season. He excels at centre thanks to his elusive stride, elastic puck-handling and elegant passing, but his finishing abilities also lend themselves to the left wing.

Notching the door frame at 6’1” and tilting the scales at 165 pounds, Johnson translates his long reach and light physique to a style that thrives with the puck on his blade. Like a surgeon or seamster or sculptor, his hands are his livelihood.

The first goal in the above compilation pinpoints precisely what Johnson offers as a prospect, offensively. He demonstrates his silky hands, shifty skating and ridiculous backhand in one singular stunning motion.

That brand of stick-handling where he corrals, cradles, controls the puck in swoops rather than chops defines his game. Whereas some players seemingly outrun the puck and compensate with little flicks by their feet as they speed up the ice, Johnson lets his blade steer while he skates. His stick leads to create space and his feet follow to occupy it.

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One of his favourite evasive maneuvers is that play where he wraps the puck around his own back to veer past a defender. The advantage of this move lies in the puck protection afforded by his own body while he shields the puck with his shoulder upon retrieval on his backhand. But it’s not easy to execute. Players momentarily sacrifice both their sight of the puck and forward momentum to dart to the side, so they need to boast masterful awareness and acceleration to maintain possession. And Johnson still manages to do it all the time.

Johnson is also an exceedingly patient skater. He honestly resembles players like Johnny Gaudreau and Mat Barzal in his refusal to just chip it or rim it or fling a distant shot on the rush. Rather, Johnson slows up as he enters the zone, spins and circles as he assesses his options, holds onto the puck and wheels before feathering feeds to his teammates. He ventures into the corners undaunted because he has the confidence and composure to keep the puck leashed to his stick as he weaves all over the ice. As Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst puts it: “His stride is clean and he can outpace back pressure on his own… Johnson is a highly-calculated puck carrier who knows when to accelerate and when to delay.”

His agile, agitated skating habits also make him an effective back-checker and neutral zone presence. Restlessness is his greatest strength away from the puck, too. On the breakout, during zone entries, on the power play—Johnson strives to make himself an option at all times by buzzing around the open ice. He provides consistent puck support to his teammates and applies relentless puck pressure against his opponents. Some centres are more mobile and engaged in all three zones than others, but Johnson definitely falls on the favourable end of that spectrum.

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Some pundits, like Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects, suggest that the most glaring possible obstacle separating Kent Johnson and an elite NHL career would be his build. Light for his height, Johnson could use an extra fifteen pounds to make himself a sturdier presence while parked in front of the net or groping for pucks in the corner. Despite his size, though, Johnson never shies from carrying the puck along the boards. He absorbs hits with grace. The kid really is fearless.

Now, what are we miss… oh. Right. He can also pull off the Michigan.

The numbers

In Johnson’s case, his measurable stats back up his visible flash. He finished his inaugural season as a left winger for the Michigan Wolverines with 9 goals and 27 points in 26 games—the second highest total boasted by any freshman in the country. In fact, of the three Michigan freshmen slated for selection in the top ten of this year’s NHL draft, Johnson was the top scorer. A lofty feat, considering the pedigrees of the brilliant Matthew Beniers and the booming Owen Power who shared his yellow sweater.

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But the extent to which Johnson can dominate the game with his scoring is best illustrated by thrusting the clutch in reverse and revisiting his 2019-2020 numbers in the BCHL. Playing as the first-line pivot for the Trail Smoke Eaters, the seventeen-year-old logged 41 goals and 101 points in only 52 games. He led the league in points by a nautical mile—only one other player, Alex Newhook, has cracked triple digits in the BCHL in the last half decade—earned the title of BCHL MVP and even garnered CJHL Top Forward honours. Those dizzying and dazzling totals perfectly reflect his dizzying and dazzling style of play.

Availability and fit

The versatility Johnson advances as a dual centre and left winger makes him a dream for anyone tasked with managing depth charts. In the Flames’ case, drafting Johnson and dressing him at centre would fortify a wilting middle. With a perpetually injured Sean Monahan under-performing and inviting attention as a trade chip and an aging Mikael Backlund starting to spot grey hairs in the mirror before he shaves, only Elias Lindholm and Connor Zary seem like sustainable long-term centrepieces for the franchise. Adding Kent Johnson would at least offer the possibility of three legitimate scoring talents at centre in the foreseeable future. And for a team as starved for scoring as the Flames, that would be invaluable. Otherwise, on the wing, his league debut could coincide with Milan Lucic’s last ride. There will indeed be a hole on the left side in the top-nine for a ravenous rookie to plug.

Now, the debate over taking Kent Johnson with the twelfth overall pick this year is moot. If the Flames even get a sniff at him on draft day, he will be the best player available. Period. And snatching the best player available is never the wrong strategy.

The above paragraph reeked of such certainty because it’s unlikely that Johnson drops into the Flames’ laps. Elite Prospects names ranks Johnson as the 10th-best prospect in the class, while FC Hockey slots him at 9th, Sportsnet (Sam Consentino) at 6th, McKeen’s Hockey at 11th, Bob McKenzie at 8th and Dobber Prospects at 10th. His appraisals by those publications average out at 9th overall—but somebody assumed to be plucked in the top ten always tumbles. And, luckily for them, the Flames are best located to catch whoever it is that slips.

2021 First Round Targets

Matthew Coronato | Aatu Räty | Mason McTavish