Johnson impresses in first season for Michigan ahead of 2021 NHL Draft

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Kent Johnson made a seamless transition to left wing from center this season to become one of the most productive first-year players in NCAA Division 1 men’s hockey at the University of Michigan.

“I played center last year (with Trail of the British Columbia Hockey League),” Johnson said. “I’m not the fastest guy yet at this level, so I can’t bust down the wall with speed. I have to get off the wall so I can use my shiftiness and IQ. Whenever I get the puck, I try to take a step to the middle and I’m getting more comfortable with that. I think I’ll get more comfortable the more games I play on the wing.

“I’d love to probably play center again at some point, but it’s really valuable to be able to play both.”

The 18-year-old (6-foot-1, 167 pounds), who received an A rating on NHL Central Scouting’s players to watch list, was first among first-year 2021 NHL Draft-eligible college players with 18 assists, 27 points and 1.04 points-per game. He led Michigan with three power-play goals.

Michigan received an at-large bid into the NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament but had to withdraw due to COVID-19 protocols.

“He’s just a really hard guy to contain and that’s a great part of his game but I think what people miss on him is his defensive and takeaway ability,” said Jeff Tambellini, who coached Johnson for two seasons at Trail and currently serves as NCAA recruiter with the Tampa Bay Lightning. “He strips people with pucks, finds a way to get a stick on a puck and creates a lot of offense off takeaways. 

“It’s always great to have offensive guys who are thinking off the puck … how do I get it back, and how do we limit our time defending.”

Johnson was one of three 2021 draft-eligible players from Michigan to earn a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, including center Matthew Beniers (6-1, 175) and defenseman Owen Power (6-6, 213). Beniers, who played center on Johnson’s line, and Power are also A-rated skaters. 

“He’s an extremely skilled player and sees the ice really well, so that’s really helpful,” Beniers said of Johnson. “Playing with smart players is always really great and I think I have the ability to win puck battles and get pucks for us and we kind of know where each other are going to be on the ice.”

This isn’t the first time Johnson has switched to left wing. He did so with Trail in 2018-19.

“We had him on left wing playing with two veteran guys and then the next year we brought him to the middle as center,” Tambellini said. “I think that’s the right progression, giving him a spot where he’s not having to be overly responsible in the defensive zone. There’s not a lot of freshmen that can do it. It’s always hard to ask a young guy to do that much as a center but once he was big enough and strong enough, he did a fantastic job his second year in being a really good two-way center.”

Johnson not only improved in his own end, but scored 101 points (41 goals, 60 assists) in 52 games with Trail in 2019-20.

“He’s an elite point producer,” Central Scouting’s David Gregory said. “When you see a 17-year-old put up 100 points, that’s something special. He plays with pace and skill, is crafty with the puck and can snipe it as well. He’s going to score a lot of goals.”

 

PROSPECTS ON THE RADAR (listed alphabetically):

Zach Dean (6-0, 176), C, Gatineau (QMJHL): Dean has rebounded since sustaining a wrist injury and missing some time in the preseason. The A-rated skater has scored 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) and leads Gatineau with five power-play goals in 21 games.

“He has the whole package,” Central Scouting’s Jean-Francois Damphousse said. “He’s a high-end skater, fast, quick and agile, with a great wrist shot. He can grind it down low and plays a solid two-way game. He’s got a high ceiling and is a potential first-round player for sure.” 

Niko Huuhtanen (6-1, 204), RW, Tappara Jr. (FIN): The 17-year-old has scored 34 points (20 goals, 14 assists) and has a plus-12 rating in 37 games for U20 SM-sarja. The B-rated skater could soon be promoted to Tappara in Liiga, Finland’s top professional men’s league.

“He’s a physically strong power forward with a winning attitude,” Central Scouting’s Goran Stubb said. “At times, he’s gritty and takes unnecessary penalties (73 penalty minutes this season), but he’s strong on his skates and difficult to move. His skating and first-step quickness need to improve, but he has a good selection of shots … he’s a sniper who likes to shoot a lot. He’s alert and dangerous around the net and has a good understanding of his defensive duties.”

Ayrton Martino (5-11, 160), LW, Omaha (USHL): The B-rated skater leads Omaha with 17 goals and 49 points and ranks second with three game-winning goals in 31 games. The 18-year-old is committed to Clarkson University in 2021-22.

“He’s a quick and elusive skater with and without the puck,” Central Scouting’s Greg Rajanen said. “He produces high-end opportunities, draws opponents to him and dishes well. Ayrton knows how to slow the rush down and buy time for support to arrive and can also makes quick decisions with the puck.”

Cole Sillinger (6-0, 190), C, Sioux Falls (USHL): Sillinger joined Sioux Falls after his season with Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League was put on hold due to the coronavirus. He leads Sioux Falls with 41 points (21 goals, 20 assists) and is second with four power-play goals in 26 games. The A-rated skater will remain with Sioux Falls for the rest of the season. He is the son of former NHL forward Mike Sillinger, who was selected No. 11 by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1989 NHL Draft and played for 12 teams in 17 NHL seasons. 

“He’s very hungry around net and makes solid decisions on the power play,” Rajanen said. “He has good hands and a good stride, knows how to slow the rush down and gain support from teammates, and can protect the puck down low.”

Photos: Michigan Photography

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