The Columbus Blue Jackets are still in the midst of a potential playoff push, as they currently sit 10 points out of the second wildcard spot with 25 games remaining. It’s unlikely they’ll add any reinforcements at the trade deadline since it’s still a bit of a long shot that they’ll make it to the postseason, however, they could make an internal addition before the end of the season. The fifth overall pick at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Kent Johnson has been playing with the University of Michigan in the NCAA as well as Team Canada in the Olympic Games.
Summary of Johnson’s Season So Far
Johnson entered his sophomore season with the University of Michigan with the goal of winning the National Championship, which is certainly a possibility with teammates like Owen Power and Matty Beniers among other top prospects. Power and Beniers were the top two picks in the same draft that saw Johnson go fifth, with their rights owned by the Buffalo Sabres and Seattle Kraken respectively.
As of now, Johnson has 33 points in 27 games in the NCAA as Michigan moves forward in the Big Ten Tournament after defeating Michigan State in the quarterfinals. He was also named as an alternate for Team Canada in the Olympic Games after the NHL players were withdrawn from the competition, however, he played the entirety of the tournament and put up five points in his five games.
Johnson was expected to be one of the top players in the NCAA this season, and he’s certainly lived up to those expectations. Currently eleventh in points-per-game in the entire league, he has been a major part of his team’s success while also appearing on highlight reels with his incredible puck handling abilities. The departure of the aforementioned Power and Beniers is likely to happen following the current season, and with the possibility that Luke Hughes and a couple of others may follow suit, it’s the perfect time for Johnson to make the jump to pro hockey if they win the Frozen Four.
The Blue Jackets’ Options
If the Blue Jackets sign Johnson to his entry-level contract prior to the conclusion of this season, they will burn a year on his contract, however, it’ll give them a chance to let him get used to the NHL lifestyle before his official rookie season. The Frozen Four Championship game is scheduled for April 9, and the Blue Jackets have a total of nine regular-season games after that date. If the team is confident that he’s ready to play at the NHL level, then this would be a great option to get him as prepared as possible for next season. Because of the contract having a year burned in that scenario, it is a fairly risky option for the team’s long-term cap management, despite the potential positive aspects. If Michigan is eliminated prior to the Frozen Four, this option becomes much more attractive since they’ll get more value out of the contract year being burned.
The Blue Jackets would also be able to mimic what they did with Michigan alumnus Zach Werenski and have the Cleveland Monsters sign Johnson to an amateur tryout agreement. This would allow the Blue Jackets to retain the year on his entry-level contract while getting him professional playing time with their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate. The Monsters will have 10 games remaining in the regular season by the time he is available, assuming Michigan advances to the Frozen Four, however, he’d really only be able to play in eight or nine at most. With the Monsters at the bottom of the division, they wouldn’t be near the playoff picture which prevents him from achieving the same level of AHL success as Werenski, who won the Calder Cup in his only stint at that level.
The final option the Blue Jackets could choose is letting Johnson enjoy his offseason and hold off on making a decision regarding his future until the summer. Returning to Michigan to play his junior season is always an option for him as well if he believes that it would be the best move for his career.
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Depending on what happens over the course of the next month, the way the Blue Jackets decide to handle this situation could change. As we all know, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen doesn’t tend to rush into decisions and it’s likely he won’t do it here either. If they are out of the playoff race, the second and third options become more tempting to save a year on Johnson’s contract. If they’re able to find a way to sneak into a battle for a playoff spot though, adding him as a reinforcement may be too good of an option to pass up.