For most teenagers, a visit from their parents in mid-October means it's family weekend at college. You know, mom and dad come down, spend the weekend, take in a football game, meet the friends and hopefully leave some money for extra-curricular activities. Wyatt Johnston isn’t your average 19-year-old. His parents, Margot and Chuck are coming down for the weekend, not to inspect his dorm room, but rather to watch their son make his NHL debut. The kid thinks his parents will be the ones to be more on edge come game-time in Nashville.
“I think I'll feel nervous obviously, they'll probably be pretty nervous as well, they might top me on that one. For me, I just try and go out there to do the same things that I always do, but for them it's a little bit different.”
There are some who believe Johnston has nine games to prove he belongs in the NHL. Dallas Stars Head Coach Pete DeBoer, on the surface, does not seem to share that way of thinking. The veteran behind the bench has Johnston slotted at Center between Captain Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov. In his first NHL game, Johnston will also see time on the power play, not exactly a spot for someone on an audition.
“That's what separates the guys that can do it and those who can't. Some guys just get overwhelmed by it. Some guys are happy to get as far as they did and that's good enough for now. I don't think Wyatt is one of those guys,” said DeBoer. “There are special players that just aren't wired that way. They're not out there in awe of who they're playing against, regardless of who they are playing against. That's rare and I think he's got that.”
In the nearly three-decade history of the Dallas Stars, never has a player who is still junior-eligible begun his season with the NHL club. Johnston will be the first. The only other player in the locker room with experience in that realm is Tyler Seguin, who broke into the Boston Bruin lineup as an 18-year-old in 2010.
Seguin said, “You can go through practices and feel pretty good and go through pre-season and feel pretty good, but once you get into a real NHL hockey game you can't train for that. You have to go in and see how you do. It's also mental as well as getting that lucky chance to prove yourself.”
One thing Stars scouts loved about Johnston is his Hockey IQ. Learning the game on the fly is paramount for any rookie. Wyatt believes he has picked up knowledge in the exhibition season that will translate into the games that count. That begins with the increased degree of difficulty posed by the men defending the blue line.
“It’s definitely much tougher playing against NHL defensemen, especially in the corners. It’s things like protecting the puck. In juniors, you can keep someone on your back and you know how to protect the puck and not get pushed off. Here the guys are a lot bigger and stronger. It's actually a huge adjustment to play against NHL defensemen,” said Johnston.
Tonight, the youngest player on the roster takes his first step toward what the Stars hope will be a long and prosperous career. Like anyone navigating through their teenage years, there will be ups and downs, rough moments as well as gaining knowledge that will last a lifetime. Dallas wants to be higher-scoring with better puck possession and Wyatt Johnston might have a big part in whether or not they succeed.