Kent Johnson’s first full season in the NHL has gone as many expected it would. He has had some bright moments. He has also had moments where it’s obvious he’s still learning the nuances of the NHL.
But in usual Johnson fashion, he’s taking everything in stride even despite the Blue Jackets’ poor record in the first half of the season. He’s having a lot of fun both on and off the ice.
We had the chance to catch up with Johnson on Saturday morning before their game against the Red Wings. The game marked his first one in Detroit. As you can imagine, there was plenty of excitement for the game. He also had time to make a visit to a special place on Friday along with teammate Nick Blankenburg.
In Conversation With Johnson
Johnson and Blankenburg each got to return to the University of Michigan on Friday night to watch their Wolverines play the Ohio State Buckeyes. Although the Buckeyes dominated and won the game, it took nothing away from the night they had watching hockey and reconnecting with their former teammates.
“It’s so cool. I’m so glad with how the schedule worked out,” Johnson said. “It was awesome to see other guys and staff. It was great. I got to see the boys after the game. Obviously wasn’t the best game for them. It felt like me and Blanks were cheering them up a bit. But they get another chance (on Saturday.) They’re a good team. They’ll be ok.”
The duo got to enjoy the usual activities of being a fan. They watched pregame warmups from ice level and banged on the glass to get the attention of their team. They got to give a stick away to the Children of Yost. They visited with some old friends. They even took a shot from center ice. Blankenburg made his shot, causing Johnson to have a little friendly jealousy.
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Given the close proximity of Columbus and Detroit (approximately three hours), expect these trips to happen when the Red Wings and Blue Jackets get together at Little Caesars Arena. It’s something the Michigan boys always look forward to. Saturday night’s game was the only trip to Detroit for the Blue Jackets in 2022-23.
Keeping Their Heads Up
The prevailing thought in a down season is how the team is keeping their morale up. During the morning skate on Saturday, those that skated looked like they were having fun. That might seem like a small and minor detail. But it shows the Blue Jackets are continuing to grow while waiting for healthy bodies to return.
Johnson takes everything whether positive or negative on a day-by-day approach.
“I think just looking day-by-day and doing as much as you can that day, just remembering how lucky you are,” Johnson said. “You can’t really take a day for granted in this league even if we’re not battling for a playoff spot right now. I think everyone is still working their hardest.”
Developing at Center
The recent injuries have allowed the opportunity for Johnson to get playing time at center. He’s learning the position while playing with different linemates on any given night. He has plenty of room for development. But in his mind, his focus is on just playing.
“I just go out and play. I don’t look at other factors (different linemates),” Johnson said. I just play and do my best. I watch the video and see what little things I need to learn. It doesn’t feel like it’s crazy to learn the position. I don’t overthink things too much like that.
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Johnson’s coach Brad Larsen sees some progress on his development there. Although Larsen admitted Johnson could see some time on the wing again as healthy bodies continue to return.
“It’s coming. We’re still real early in that process,” Larsen said. “It takes time and we’re gonna see where it goes. It’s not a lock that he stays at center. He may go back to the wing at some point here, depending on who we have in our lineup here. It’s just good to get some bodies back.”
Johnson and the Blue Jackets continue to work hard with 40 games left in their season. In his sight, the morale is in a good place despite the standings. Guys are still finding ways to smile and have fun. Since the long-term outlook remains bright, the team is showing they are trying to make the best out of a bad situation.
There is no quit in these Blue Jackets. That was on display in their 4-3 win over the Red Wings.
3 Game Takeaways
Laine’s Hat Trick/Gaudreau Chemistry
Patrik Laine scored his 10th career hat trick to help open a 4-0 lead. The first one came on a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau. With each goal comes the same question. Is the chemistry getting closer to where they want it to be? All parties say it’s coming.
“I feel like we’ve had a lot of chances lately,” Laine said. “Before tonight we haven’t been able to score too many goals. But I feel like this game was a step in the right direction for us. And in fact, we weren’t forcing it at all. We were just taking what they were giving us. I’m happy that we got those three goals.”
“Yeah that line had a good night. They could have had more,” Larsen said. “They were close to cashing more in tonight. All of a sudden you have Boone back in the lineup and if that line can stay together and the way Boone’s line (played), I thought they gave us great minutes and what he brings. You’re starting to get some depth a little bit again. And we need that.”
“This isn’t like they’ve been together for three years and it takes time. Chemistry, we all want it to be instantaneous. But a lot of times it takes time.”
The Blue Jackets opened the third period Saturday night in an unusual spot. It was 4-0 and everything was working for them. The last 20 minutes would be a test. Could they finish the game out with no nervous moments?
Thanks to an unlucky break, it gave the Red Wings an opportunity. They almost completed the comeback as a result.
Mathieu Olivier scored the Red Wings’ first goal off his skate and then his stick. They soon added two more goals to energize the building. Even though the Red Wings had multiple chances to tie the game, the Blue Jackets held firm and finished off the 4-3 win.
This situation is a new experience for these young Blue Jackets. They were comfortably ahead on the road. How would they manage it? Larsen was proud of the effort to shut it down.
“We haven’t been in this situation if we’re open and honest with you. We haven’t been in this situation all year,” Larsen said. “So we wanted to get them started with the first one (Olivier own goal.) But we got through it. And that’s a big step for this group. I thought they handled it very well.”
Merzlikins Showing Progress
Suddenly, Elvis Merzlikins has put together a couple of solid starts in recent games. He was the hard luck loser in Washington 1-0. It wasn’t a great night in Tampa for the team overall. But then in Detroit on Saturday night, Merzlikins had a calmness about him that we hadn’t seen much this season. On top of it being a team effort, Larsen went out of his way to acknowledge the positive steps Merzlikins has taken recently.
“I think we did a good job in front of him, right? But for me tonight, watching him, he looked calm. He was square. For example, you look back at Tampa Bay and the Kucherov one timer. He’s extended. He’s pushing the guy in front. He doesn’t get across. It’s on the ice. That’s a save he should make. He knows that.”
“And tonight, same thing happens. He square comes over. It’s off the pad. It looks like a routine save even though it’s a hard save. Stuff was hitting him in the chest. That’s a good sign instead of looking desperate and sticks in the corner, I think he looked very under control. And I love how he handled the situation when it got ramped up. Right away after the goal, he goes to Olivier and gives a ‘hey it happens right?’ They score again. He’s still calm and that’s a good sign because there’s going to be moments and you’ve gotta calm your mind in the storm. And I thought he did a good job of that tonight.”
Merzlikins was very happy with the win. On the feeling of winning, “Ah, amazing.”
The Blue Jackets will enjoy Sunday off and will be on the ice Monday morning in advance of their game against the New York Rangers.