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Blue Jackets' Kent Johnson Playing Beyond Expectations at Olympics

Not even named to the main roster initially, Kent Johnson has quickly become one of Canada's most dangerous players in Beijing.
Kent Johnson

He wasn't even supposed to play.

If everything went the way it was supposed to in Beijing, Kent Johnson was going to be on the taxi squad. By rule, he'd be watching the games away from the team and in his own little bubble with the rest of the extras.

Instead, he's tied for the team lead in points after the round robin.

It came at the expense of former NHLer Daniel Carr, who missed the start of the tournament after getting COVID-19 prior to training camp in Davos a few weeks back. Carr is back with the team now, but with how good Johnson has been, it has worked out quite nicely for the Canadians.

At 19, Johnson is one of the youngest players at the Olympics, so trying to find ice time on a team like Canada is a challenge. Johnson's play has given Claude Julien no option but to continue playing his star youngster, and that's a good thing for both parties.

Johnson has averaged 15:05 of ice time for a team that has done a good job of evenly distributing ice time through the four lines. Johnson has centered Canada's third line with Eric O'Dell and Ben Street, an "energy" line with 11 points combined and the top three spots on the team in points. Line designations don't really mean a lot in major international tournaments, but it's fair to say a college player coming in after not initially making the main roster and having such an impact wasn't really expected.

Johnson's path to Canada's Olympic team has been electric. He was taken fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer after posting over a point-per-game as a freshman at the University of Michigan. He upped the ante this year with 30 points in 23 games in a season that has seen delays due to both the Olympics and his short-lived run with the World Junior Championship team prior to the cancellation of the event. 

Two years ago, Johnson truly put his name on the map with one of the best Canadian Junior A seasons by a U-18 forward over the past 20 years, recording 101 points - 30 points clear of the second-highest scorer. As a player, Johnson is focused, relaxed and offensively gifted. He's a great goal-scorer, but an even better playmaker. Johnson can line up with just about anyone and find instant chemistry while making his teammates better. When he's really playing well, the game follows his lead. 

For as good as Johnson, and fellow junior-aged prospect Mason McTavish are, they're still playing with and against men, two things they have limited experience with. This is the first time Johnson has played against pro competition in his career, so had Johnson just sat in the shadows and used Beijing solely as a learning experience, it would have made sense. But instead, he has become such a valuable piece of Canada's attack and someone the team is going to rely on in the qualification round against China and, assuming they pull off the win, Sweden in the quarterfinals. 

Some scouts believe Johnson could jump to the NHL as soon as next year. Others want him to spend another year in the NCAA without the disruptions an international hockey tournament could bring. For as good as he is, COVID-19, the Olympics and World Junior Championship has limited his actual NCAA playing time to just 49 games over two years. He's been excellent, but Michigan - a team with enough first-round talent to form its own all-star squad - should factor into NCAA championship discussion over the next few years and Johnson will be a big piece of that.

Blue Jackets fans have to be thrilled with what they've seen with Johnson so far. He's fun, skilled and making a real impact on a gold-medal contender. He's a top-10 point producer in a tournament that's as wide open as ever, giving opportunities for prospects like Sean Farrell and Juraj Slafkovsky to really showcase what they can do. There's hasn't been a true explosive offensive player in this tournament just yet - Farrell's the only player to hit the 2.00 points-per-game mark, and five of his six points came in the first game against China. But what Johnson has been is consistent, and Canada will need to keep doing being just that as the stakes get higher.

And to think they didn't value him highly enough to even give him a proper roster spot at first. Just call it fate. 

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