Entering the season, there were a fair number of questions about Kent Johnson.
There was no doubt that the freshman forward had more than enough skill to succeed at both the college and pro-level. He proved that in the British Columbia Hockey League when he posted 101 points in 52 games last season.
But the BCHL is known for having a more offensive style of play, while the college game is more physical. Offense wouldn’t come as easily for the 6-foot-1, 165-pound Johnson. His ability to play in the defensive zone was definitely a concern, and Johnson was aware.
“I think everyone knew I wasn’t going to come in and put up 100 points here,” Johnson said. “So obviously I’ve had to adjust.”
Johnson put to rest any worries about his offensive production in his first game with the Michigan hockey team when he tallied four assists. The goals came soon after, including one against Minnesota that showed just how good he is with the puck.
On the other hand, his play without the puck still lagged behind throughout the first half of the season. Johnson had primarily played center prior to coming to Ann Arbor, which entails playing less along the boards and more in open ice — which plays to Johnson’s strengths. Moving to the wing and having to battle along the boards with bigger and stronger players was a major adjustment. As of late, though, Johnson has turned a corner.
“Just the reps and doing it in a game and learning different ways that I can kind of protect the puck and use my skill and my IQ and vision to make good plays on the wall instead of just chipping it right away or taking it back towards my D-men,” Johnson said.
As a result, Johnson’s line has become even more potent than it was at the beginning of the season. By winning puck battles along the boards, Johnson has been able to send freshman forward Matty Beniers on more odd-man rushes, an area in which Beniers excels at converting.
Additionally, the line of Johnson, Beniers and senior forward Luke Morgan has gotten more extended shifts in the offensive zone — especially in the Wolverines’ two Big Ten Tournament games — as all three are now capable on the forecheck.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson also thinks Johnson’s decision-making with the puck has improved. In the first half of the season, Johnson sometimes tried to be a little too creative with the puck, resulting in the occasional turnover if he did it in the wrong spot on the ice. Now, he’s willing to dump the puck in and trust his and his linemates’ ability to get it back.
“He wanted to slow everything down, and at times he still does that, but because of the pace here in the Big Ten … he’s learned that you have to play with some more urgency, a little more grease and obviously quicker pace, along with doing the things he’s good at, with his skill set and his creativity,” Pearson said. “And that has continued to flourish.”
Johnson still isn’t the strongest player in his own zone, and with two strong defensive players on his line, he doesn’t have to take too much defensive responsibility. But the strides he has made in both ends of the ice since November have given Pearson significantly more confidence in him.
Johnson is no longer weak along the boards. He’s more consistent defensively. He’s less likely to make an ill-advised move resulting in a turnover. And with the NCAA Tournament approaching, in which one mistake could end the Wolverines’ season, Johnson’s improvements will pay dividends.