As the father of three former and one current teenager, I can tell from experience, that part of the goal during those teen years is trying to get noticed. Whether it’s academics, athletics, or any other adolescent activity, part of the fun is to elicit a response. From “Way to go, we’re proud of you,” to “You call that music?” teenagers find a way to become the center of many a conversation. The Dallas Stars have a couple of teenagers still in camp, Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven. As teenagers typically do, both are trying to be in the spotlight and make the older generation really consider what the next move should be.
In the history of the Dallas Stars, never has an Opening Night line-up listed a player that was still eligible to play for his junior team back in Canada. According to the agreement between the NHL and CHL, a junior-eligible player can be on an NHL roster for nine games before a decision has to be made. After that short trial period, there are only two options: stay with the NHL team for the entire season or return to his junior team until their campaign is over. Unless a team is drafting in the top five selections, rarely does a teenager even get considered for this type of NHL audition. The last two Stars teenagers to play the inaugural game in a season, Val Nichushkin and Miro Heiskanen, both had experience playing against grown men back in Europe. That history of sending junior hockey players to play in the CHL may change this year, a product of talent and necessity. The player with the best chance to break through the iced ceiling might be 2021 first-round pick Wyatt Johnston.
(On a personal note, I believe there should be an exceptional talent exemption for certain players. There is a point where some youngsters have nothing left to prove at the junior hockey level and would benefit from a higher level of play.)
With the injury to Ty Dellandrea, an extra roster spot has opened up for the forwards. Depth has provided for AHL players such as Riley Damiani, Oskar Back, Riley Tufte, Fredrik Karlstrom, and Marian Studenic to make a run at filling the void. With the exception of Back, all have played in the NHL before and know what is needed to contribute at the highest level. When looking at the traits Dellandrea brought to the mix, many of those are mirrored by Johnston. Like Dellandrea, the 19-year-old Johnston is versatile, plays center or wing, shoots right-handed and is responsible enough in the defensive zone to kill penalties. At the 2021 U-18 World Championships, Team Canada was loaded with offensive talent (Shane Wright, Connor Bedard, Mason MacTavish, etc.) Johnston was asked to take the role of a 3rd liner, tasked with playing against the best forwards in the tournament. Wyatt played his role dutifully and helped Canada win Gold. On his way to earning the 2022 OHL Player of the Year, Johnston led the OHL in points partnered with a very respectable plus/minus rating of +29, tied for 11th best among all forwards. Unlike some high-scoring prospects, Johnston doesn’t need to be shown where the defensive zone is on the rink.
Dallas Stars Head Coach Pete DeBoer has promised a clean slate regardless of experience coming into the preseason. Last night against St. Louis, Johnston had his best night of the preseason, scoring his first goal in the Stars' 5-2 victory over the Blues. Johnston has shown flashes of creativity and vision which is a plus for a team looking to be more aggressive offensively. At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, he is not as physically developed as his rivals for a roster spot, which is a drawback. Johnston is trying his best to make the pros outweigh the cons and give Pete DeBoer much to consider when making the next round of cuts.
The Stars are still hopeful Jason Robertson will be signed, removing one possible opening at forward. Unlike most teams willing to cede a roster spot to a junior-eligible player, Dallas is not in rebuilding mode. The opportunity still exists for Johnston as it does for Stankoven and all the other forwards remaining in camp. Stars insiders know it is not a matter of if, but rather when will Johnston make his NHL debut. The only question is, will team history be made when he does?