When it comes to hockey, what is “skill”? It’s fair to conjure up memories of Pavel Datsyuk and his “Datsyukian dekes” when answering this question, but there’s more to it than that.
“Everyone thinks skill is toe drags, picking it up over the net and doing one of (those) things. No, that’s parlor tricks. The real skill is the hockey IQ, the vision, the understanding of the game and reading your teammates, that’s the true skill.”– Igor Larionov II during his appearance on THW Grind Line
With the sixth pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, the Detroit Red Wings have the opportunity to add a prospect to their system that has a ton of skill – in fact, it is imperative that they do so. What the Red Wings really lack, though, is a difference-maker that can impact the game whenever they touch the ice. While this ultimately may not be the draft they find one in, it may behoove general manager Steve Yzerman and his scouts to take a big swing on somebody that has the potential to be that difference-maker. As far as this draft class is concerned, there may not be another forward that fits the bill better than University of Michigan winger Kent Johnson.
Related: Red Wings 2021 Draft Coverage
In his freshman season this year, Johnson recorded nine goals and 27 points in 26 games. For a freshman, those are undeniably impressive totals, and they are a big reason why this player seems like a lock to be picked within the top 10 picks of this year’s draft. However, despite all the good that he has to offer, there are some red flags in his game that absolutely must be considered before a team like the Red Wings invests such an important pick in this player.
MCP – Most Creative Player
In terms of pure, raw offensive skill, Johnson might be the best player in this entire draft. Will Scouch coined him as “if NHL 21 were real”, and I totally get it. He has the ability to attack opposing defenders all on his own and do things with with his hands that you might see somebody pull off in the popular video game franchise. He can make a defender miss just by changing speeds and shifting angles, which then opens up passing and shooting lanes. Watching him play, you can already begin to imagine what he would look like as the quarterback of an NHL power play.
“Johnson has all the tools to be an elite top line forward in the NHL some day. He’s deceptively quick, owns a deadly wrist shot and is one of the most creative players in the entire draft,” said Matthew Zator, head of draft coverage here at THW. To his point, Johnson’s creativity and playmaking will likely draw the most attention as an NHL prospect, but he also owns a sneaky-good shot, and he knows where to go in order to use that shot. This isn’t a perimeter player; he often heads to the slot and even hangs out right in front of the crease to put himself in a scoring position. He has the offensive instincts to become a 25-to-30 goal-scorer at the NHL level.
Johnson doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game, but I wouldn’t label him as a physical forward. If he’s out there throwing hits and grinding along the boards, that’s a bad thing because you would much rather see him skating with the puck on his stick. When it is on his stick, he’s a puck-control machine. He has the ability to create time and space for himself to operate in the offensive zone, and his gifted hands allow him to make shifty moves in tight in order to evade opposing defenders. If one of his teammates can get open in the offensive zone, he has the ability not only to buy them time to get set up, but also to hit them with a crisp, clean pass.
Great Power, Great Responsibility
To circle back to Larionov II’s quote, there is zero doubt that Johnson has the type of skill that he first mentions. Throughout his career, he is going to make a highlight reel plenty of times – he has the hands and finesse it takes to do so. However, it’s the second kind of skill – the “real” skill as Larionov puts it – that sometimes is missing from Johnson’s game. He has all the talent in the world, but he doesn’t always seem to know how to use it.
While he is a puck-possession machine, he sometimes falls into the trap of hanging on to the puck for too long, ignoring open passing and shooting lanes as he tries to make the “perfect” play. When he makes a nifty move to create time and space for himself, he frequently squanders it by indecisively hanging on to the puck before eventually giving it away with an ill-advised pass. If the opposition can attack him with strategic and relentless pressure, it is almost a given that the creative forward is going to make a mistake a some point.
If the opposition is able to cancel him out, the problem is further enhanced because Johnson isn’t a player that really stands out away from the puck. He competes in the defensive zone, but I would not consider him to be a two-way player. Simply put: if he’s not showing off his offensive talents, he is basically invisible. To be fair, this is something that can be worked on, and the team that does select this player will absolutely have to figure out ways for him to make an impact without the puck.
A few other things:
- At 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds, he needs to add weight to his frame in order to fully realize his potential at the NHL level. You can easily imagine a big defender like Victor Hedman throwing Johnson aside in the offensive zone.
- Playing on a team that had Owen Power and Matty Beniers – two of the top players in this year’s draft class – as well as other first round picks such as Jacob Perreault and Brendan Brisson, I can’t help but wonder what this player would look like on a team where he has to do most of the heavy lifting. Red Wings fans saw this season with Filip Zadina what happens when a player with a ton of skill plays with players that are not necessarily up at his level….
- A lot of his points this season came off of secondary assists, and while his overall point total is evidence that good things seemed to happen when he was on the ice, you’d like to see a playmaker like him be more directly involved with the goals he collected points off of.
Short answer: not next season, and probably not the next one either.
Long answer: it depends on a couple factors – his own internal growth as a player, and the team that drafts him. I think the optimal route for Johnson would be for him to return to the University of Michigan next season where he can hopefully demonstrate that he has made progress in the areas that are cause for concern. Following another season with the Wolverines, I think a full season in the AHL would be highly beneficial for him as he would learn fairly quickly how little time and space you have at the pro level. Should he show continued progress throughout that time, you could see him make a late-season NHL debut in 2023.
Fit with the Red Wings
“Although the North Vancouver native is listed as a natural center, he played most of his freshman year at Michigan University on the left-wing,” Zator said. “His effectiveness there speaks to his versatility which will also raise his stock in this year’s draft.”
To Zator’s point, while Johnson was a center growing and it’s nice to have that experience in his back pocket, I think he is ultimately more projectable as a winger. While he could learn to play center over time, you’re drafting this player with the idea that he’s going to be a winger for you down the road. While I’ve been a been supporter of drafting and adding players on the wings, this wouldn’t exactly address the Red Wings’ two biggest needs in terms of skaters: a top line center and a top-pair defenseman. That being said, if Detroit does draft him, he would arguably become the organization’s most gifted offensive prospect, even ahead of 2020 top pick Lucas Raymond.
Best Player Available
In terms of raw talent, there’s a very good chance that Johnson will be THE best player available to the Red Wings at sixth overall. Nobody else in this draft class does the things that this kid can do and has done on a regular basis. His potential is on display every time he’s on the ice, and you can easily envision this kid bringing people out of their seats with his vision and creativity.
The problem for me is that this kid is very much in the boom or bust category. If Johnson hits and realizes his potential, he could easily become one of the top five players to come out of this draft. If he fails to reach his potential, however, he could fall anywhere between a complimentary top six player and a dominant career-AHLer.
If you’re looking for the Red Wings to take a big swing in this draft, there may not be a better player to swing on than Johnson.
“With the puck on his stick, Johnson is a very dangerous player. He is a very good skater and can pick up speed in the neutral zone and attack open lanes with ease. He is able to open up passing lanes with his puck handling ability in tight and can find teammates in the shot with ease.” – Mathieu Sheridan, The Hockey Writers
“From a defensive standpoint, Johnson pretty much just does what he needs to do. He may not win any awards for his defensive play, but he’s not a liability in his own end. The best defense is not having to play in the defensive zone at all, and his line is seemingly always in the offensive zone.” – Bailey Johnson, Smaht Scouting
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.