Kent Johnson has been one of the biggest bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite averaging just over twelve minutes a game this season, he is tied with Sean Kuraly for fourth on the team in scoring.
Plenty of Ice Time Available for Johnson
Johnson is outplaying veterans like Gustav Nyquist and Jack Roslovic, who were expected to be important pieces this season. Roslovic has become a regular healthy scratch over the past week or so, but Nyquist is still playing on the top line. Johnson is behind recent call-up Trey Fix-Wolansky and is mostly playing with players who have spent most of the season in the American Hockey League, Brendan Gaunce and Emil Bemstrom. Cole Sillinger, who has had a very disappointing sophomore season, is on the second line despite being younger than Johnson. There’s plenty of ice time available for him, yet head coach Brad Larsen seems reluctant to give any to the young forward regardless of his performance level.
When a team has dug itself into this big a hole, players who perform at a high level need to be rewarded regardless of age or experience. Johnson is outperforming most of the team, and as injuries continue to ravage the organization, there’s no excuse for him not getting a bigger opportunity. As my colleague Mark Scheig stated earlier this week, development is critical this season, and letting Johnson sit in the bottom-six with limited ice time isn’t helping him grow.
Larsen Holding Johnson Back
Holding back Johnson, who has proven he can be effective, is a mistake that Larsen may come to regret. His job is far from secure based on this season’s performance so far. Now is a good time to take some chances and utilize players like Johnson more than he may be comfortable with.
If he struggles, Larsen can work him back down the lineup. But if Johnson is considered a future face of the franchise – as he should be – then why limit his role? Give him a chance to play with the top players and offer him some ice time at center and see what happens. Allowing struggling players to remain in the top six while young players are thriving further down the lineup sets a dangerous precedent. Ice time should be determined based on a player’s ability and performance, and the team will never reach its full potential playing safe. As former head coach John Tortorella often said, “Safe is death” in the NHL.
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There is always the risk that giving a young player too much responsibility can stunt their growth. However, at the same time, refusing to move him up the lineup when he’s shown he’s capable can be just as dangerous. Johnson has proven he’s more valuable than a third-line player at the NHL level. Right now, it seems like a no-brainer that he should be in the top-six getting substantial ice time.
Johnson wasn’t ready to start the season with the Blue Jackets, at least that’s what management believed when they sent him down to the Cleveland Monsters. Yet, when he was recalled after a single game, he thrived. Now they believe he’s not ready for a bigger role and, once again, I expect he’ll prove them wrong if given an opportunity. It’s time for him to be a regular in the Blue Jackets’ top-six. If not, they’re wasting his ability for no good reason.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.