19-year-old Wyatt Johnston has hit the first major milestone in his NHL career. When Dallas made its final three roster moves on Sunday, Johnston found himself safe and sound, remaining on the roster ahead of opening night. But before he likely makes his debut on Thursday in Nashville, let’s look at his biggest challenge at the highest level.
Johnston has offensive firepower and hockey IQ. We became very aware of that when he scored 124 points in just 68 games in the OHL last season. As we have seen in the past, players that dominate to that extent in Juniors usually find success in the NHL. Johnston showed some of that offense in Traverse City and the preseason but was held fairly quiet on the scoresheet.
That’s where the questions come in. Is he ready to make those high-flying skilled plays in the NHL? The most important factors standing in his way will be his size and matching the intensity needed to make an impact. Johnston stands 6-foot-1, 178 pounds. He has the foundation to eventually be a force but needs to continue putting on weight and muscle to compete with the top talent in the world. In the meantime, using his IQ and finding that elite intensity will be crucial.
"I know I need to get stronger. That's definitely one of my main focuses, especially this summer, is to get bigger, get stronger," Johnston said after last season. "Being able to use my hockey IQ will really be able to help me a lot, even if I'm not as strong as some of the grown men I would be playing against in the NHL. … [It'll] help me win battles. I may not be able to outmuscle anyone, but I think being able to use my smarts to be able to compete and do well."
The kid said it perfectly. In the preseason, it was noticeable when he was overwhelmed and bullied off the puck. Every puck battle, rush, and especially when defending in your zone in the NHL is met with unmatched pace and intensity. While the strength will take time, the intensity is something he can and will need to learn on the fly.
"I kind of knew what to expect coming in, but obviously, it's a huge adjustment from junior," Johnston said Monday. "Guys are that much bigger, that much faster, that much better overall. There's an adjustment in process and Thursday night is going to be another step up from preseason."
If you watch Trevor Zegras in Anaheim (similar body type to Johnston), you can see two sides to his game: the super skilled stuff with the puck, and the moments where he is outmuscled. We have seen Denis Gurianov and Valeri Nichushkin struggle with that same issue: finding the intensity consistently. Johnston is in that boat right now
Intensity can be hard to replicate. Training in the summer, playing in the lower divisions, and even practice and preseason cannot match the aspects of every inch of an NHL game. That’s why players put so much importance into getting on the ice in game situations to ramp up.
“Every time you play a game at the NHL level, it gets tougher and tougher and you have to keep raising your level,” Head Coach Pete DeBoer said.
"Sometimes you see young players pop early in camp and then as the pace picks up and things get tougher, their game slides a little. I thought it was the opposite with him. Every day out there, he got more comfortable, he looked better, the tougher the games got as the preseason went on, the better he was. I thought he might have been our best player in Minnesota, a tough game in a tough rink. Hopefully, he can keep growing on that."
Johnston has had more success at center. He touches the puck more, gets to the better scoring areas, and isn’t required to face as many board battles in his own end. So it is not surprising that he has been mostly playing center since the preseason opener against the Blues and will likely begin the season in that spot somewhere in the bottom six.
"I liked him at center more than on the wing in the periods I've put him there, but that doesn't mean he can't play wing if we put him there," DeBoer said.
Johnston has nine games to make a good impression. Before the Stars' Nov. 1 matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, Dallas will need to make a tough decision: whether to send him back to the OHL for another year of development or to keep him and use the first year of his entry-level contract. Matching the intensity of the NHL on a nightly basis will be a massive challenge and likely the key to sticking around Big D for the long haul.