It’s been a busy week for General Manager Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks.
On Saturday, he acquired centre Jason Dickinson from the Dallas Stars, in exchange for a third round pick. That same afternoon, he and his front office team had to submit the final draft of their protected players list for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft. Just a few days later, the NHL’s 32nd team, and the newest geographical rival to the Canucks, officially selected forward Kole Lind to join their expansion franchise.
And now, Benning and co. are less than 48 hours away from selecting a first round pick in the upcoming 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
On Friday evening, the Canucks will be slotted in at ninth overall, marking the sixth time in the past 10 years that the organization has chosen a young prospect from the top 10. From those six selections, three of them have gone on to become franchise players in Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, while their most recent first round selection, Vasily Podkolzin, is expected to compete for a roster spot at training camp in September.
In other words, the pressure is on for Benning to choose a prospect that could immediately contribute to this young, talented core.
Unlike most years, however, the 2021 prospect ranking list isn’t as straightforward.
Most scouts and insiders tend to have a consensus of which players will fall at each position, but it appears that a few factors have thrown this for a loop; first and foremost, the effects of COVID-19.
General managers and their drafting/scouting teams have been unable to watch many of these players over the past year, particularly due to shortened and/or cancelled seasons. Not to mention, when junior leagues were able to resume, these NHL organizations weren’t even allowed to travel to see these highly-ranked prospects live and in-person, forcing them to rely on tape and previous intel to construct their own rankings.
Global pandemic aside, we’re also entering a draft year without a consensus number one draft pick. Most power rankings have defenceman Owen Powers going first overall on Friday, but it’s far from unanimous, and the same debate applies for picks two to ten.
As a result, we could see a handful of talented players slip down the rankings come Friday night, putting Vancouver in a great position to select a highly-talented prospect at ninth overall no matter what.
So who exactly would fit that bill perfectly? Fortunately for the Canucks, they don’t need to look too far to find that player.
Enter Kent Johnson.
The North Vancouver, B.C. native started his hockey career as an 18-year-old with the Trail Smoke Eaters of the BCHL, where he registered 61 goals and 86 assists over two seasons, including an impressive 101 points in 52 games in 2019-20. Johnson then went on to play for the University of Michigan in the NCAA. During their shortened season, Johnson put up nine goals and 18 assists in 26 games, good for just over a point-per-game pace. During his time in Michigan, Johnson also made the transition from left wing to centre, proving that he could perform well at multiple positions on the ice.
According to Elite Prospects, Johnson possesses high hockey IQ that is evident in his creativity, precision and agility on the ice. A high-octane, offensively-driven goalscorer and playmaker, Johnson is known for dazzling the crowd with highlight-reel plays and dekes that appear effortless.
He is able to score goals at will with his quick, yet accurate wrist shot, and has all the tools to transform into a dangerous, point-producing top-six forward in the NHL. Not to mention, he’s currently ranked at ninth overall for a handful of prospect draft rankings, including TSN insider Bob McKenzie, which should bode well for the Canucks if teams don’t go off the board.
It also helps that Johnson hails from British Columbia.
The 6’1″, 165 pound forward started with the North Shore Winter Club in 2016 before switching over to the Burnaby Winter Club in 2017, the same program that developed Islanders’ star Mat Barzal. During his time in the BCHL, he worked closely with former head coach and current Tampa Bay Lightning pro scout Steve Tambellini on improving many aspects of his game, including his fluid puck-handling skills, and his ability to produce high-danger shots from a variety of angles.
By staying in the province, Johnson was able to keep very close tabs on the Canucks, particularly focusing on the gameplay and skillset of Pettersson.
Earlier this week, Johnson joined Scott Rintoul and Karen Surman on “Rintoul and Surman” on Sportsnet 650 to talk about the possibility of being drafted by his hometown city, and the opportunity to play with Pettersson if selected by the Canucks.
“I think everyone knows I’d be super happy to play in Vancouver,” Johnson said.
He later went on to talk about Vancouver’s talented powerplay unit, and how it would “be cool feeding Pettersson one-timers”, a quote that could become music to the ears of Canucks’ fans in the near future.
Despite his growing list of strengths, Johnson does also have a few aspects of his game that require fine-tuning.
According to most scouting reports, Johnson has a tendency to over-handle the puck, particularly in tight, pressure-filled situations. He will often overlook a simple passing option to a teammate, leading to poor puck protection, limited space in the offensive zone and numerous turnovers as a result. When Johnson coughs up the puck, he also has difficulty retrieving it back based on his mediocre defensive skills and top-heavy speed.
Defensive issues and subpar decision-making aside, Johnson could still very well be a long-term solution for the team’s third-line centre issues. Entering next season, it’s expected that Dickinson will fill that role, much he like did during his tenure in Dallas. However, Dickinson is not known for lighting up the scoresheet, something that the 3C position has lacked for almost a decade now.
If the Canucks were to select Johnson at ninth overall, and if he were to continue to score at such an elite and explosive level while also developing his defensive skills and filling out his frame during his entry-level contract, he could eventually provide the Canucks with a deadly 1-2-3 punch down the middle for years to come. It would also allow Dickinson to slot into the fourth-line centre role (granted he’s a part of the team’s long-term plan moving forward), providing the Canucks with a safe, defensively-sound fourth-line centre that could kill penalties and succeed in superstar match-ups.
Given his intelligent puck-handling skills and natural ability to score, as well as his obsession and dedication to his craft, it seems that Johnson would be the perfect addition to Vancouver’s young core moving forward. Now we’ll just have to wait and see if Benning agrees come Friday night.
What are your thoughts, Canucks fans? Should the Canucks select Johnson ninth overall if available? Let us know in the comments below!