The start of the Dallas Stars 2022-23 regular brings mixed emotions for those who follow the franchise closely. Beginning the campaign with points in five consecutive games while scoring 18 goals in four winning efforts instilled extreme optimism in the hearts of many. However, a lackluster end to a long road trip and an injury to the team’s best player, Miro Heiskanen, served as a “back to reality” moment. Still, there is one pleasant surprise that continues to bring about a buzz. That is the emergence of 19-year-old center Wyatt Johnston.
Provided an extended look with the Stars before determining his fate for the year, Johnston has done nothing but provide continuous evidence for the argument to keep him in Dallas instead of returning him to the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Windsor Spitfires. Scoring three goals in his first eight NHL games, Johnston is tied for second in goals amongst Stars players, providing offense even when Dallas’ most reliable producers struggle.
A new hockey season generally brings forth a plethora of newsworthy storylines. Of course, some instill positivity, while others leave a sense of despair. It is safe to say that Johnston’s early impact in Dallas, paired with a development disrupted by the Covid- 19 pandemic, fits into the uplifting category.
Wyatt Johnston’s Journey to Dallas
Selected sixth overall by the Spitfires in the 2019 OHL Priority Selection, Johnston put together a mildly respectful rookie campaign posting 12 goals and 18 assists in 53 games. Of course, most expect a player’s first season in any new league to involve a learning curve with a potent dip in statistical production. For Johnston, it was all about building off his rookie campaign and making a genuine impact in his draft-eligible season. Unfortunately, that season never took place.
Like so many young players during the Covid-19 pandemic, the cancelation of the 2020-21 OHL season significantly impacted Johnston’s scout-worthy ice time during the most crucial point of his young hockey career. Unfortunately, his body of work that year only included his participation with Team Canada in the WJC-18. Johnston had a respectable showing during the tournament, recording four points in seven games.
Expected to fall in the draft due to limited action, the Stars felt confident enough in what they saw, taking him 23rd overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Though many viewed the selection as a reach, it took minimal time for Dallas to start feeling like they made the correct decision. Johnston completely exploded in 2021-22, recording an astounding 46 goals and 78 assists in 68 regular season games, making him the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) top scorer. Adding 41 points in 25 postseason contests, Johnston obtained numerous awards, including the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player and Most Sportsmanlike Player. Although the verdict was still out on his NHL readiness, Johnston accomplished all he needed in the OHL, even after missing an entire year.
Giving the Stars No Choice
Heading into the 2022-23 NHL season, the Stars found themselves in an exciting yet challenging situation. Johnston’s monster performance in the OHL just a year prior made it clear he was ready for the next step in his development. There is only so much more progress a player can make when they are already dominating the competition. However, with the current NHL-CHL transfer agreement, sending Johnston to the American Hockey League (AHL) to continue his growth was not an option. He needed to demonstrate readiness to play in the NHL at the young age of 19. A feat not accomplished by many players. If Johnston proved he was not ready to take that leap, sending him back to the OHL would be the only option.
Luckily, Johnston’s play to start the year makes Stars’ general manager Jim Nill’s decision a simple one. Centering Dallas’s third line, Johnston displays a level of comfort and familiarity similar to that of a second or third-year NHLer. He plays a disciplined two-way game, showing as much attention to defense as he does offense. One might even argue that his defensive play outshines his offensive accomplishments. A claim that is difficult to imagine after taking a peek at his early production. Not the flashiest player on the ice, Johnston’s high-end hockey IQ gives him the wherewithal to position himself in opportunist areas where he can capitalize. When the Stars’ primary contributors begin producing again, Johnston provides the team with a solid secondary scoring option. Something the team desperately needed more of last season.
Now eight games into his nine-game trial, there is no question that Johnston will remain with the team this season. The focus now shifts to how big of an impact the young center can have in his rookie campaign. Already forming strong chemistry with linemate Ty Dellandrea, Johnston is on pace to post between 45 to 50 points this season. Of course, that projection should dip as the year progresses. Still, nothing would please Dallas more than to receive somewhere near 40 points from their rookie third-line center.
After an eye-brow-raising start to the 2022-23 season, the hype surrounding the Stars may have recently cooled off slightly. That does not mean that the expectations inside the locker room have shifted, and this team expects to make a serious postseason push come the Spring time. Continued production from a once-unexpected addition to their roster should go a long way in helping to obtain those goals.
John Gove is an experienced hockey writer who admires the game at all levels. Currently, John is a contributor for The Hockey Writers, covering the Philadelphia Flyers.