Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: Kent Johnson’s sophomore season off to a rocky start

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A collection of notes, insights, ruminations, and did-you-knows gathered throughout the week that was for the Columbus Blue Jackets:

Item No. 1: Johnson’s rough start

It doesn’t take much to get Blue Jackets fans fretting about the handling of a young prospect, given all the struggles this franchise has faced through the years in drafting and developing players. The current worry is forward Kent Johnson, the No. 5 pick in 2021.

In an otherwise dreadful 2022-23 season, Johnson was a bright spot for the Jackets as a rookie. He had 16-24-40 in 79 games, and if he played on a better club in a bigger market, he would have been included in the Calder Trophy conversation.

This season has gotten off to a rocky start, though. Johnson was a healthy scratch for the season opener, a healthy scratch again late last month in Montreal, and was benched for much of the third period after a brutal sequence on the power play during Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay.

On Friday, Johnson was sent to AHL Cleveland.

All of this, coupled with news this week that Johnson has changed agents, has started a five-alarm fire within the Blue Jackets fan base, who have been assured repeatedly that Johnson and the other young players are part of a bright future in Columbus.

Is Johnson’s future in Columbus now in doubt?

It doesn’t seem so, based on conversations this week with Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent and Johnson, although it should be noted that Johnson spoke with The Athletic before he learned of his demotion to Cleveland.

“(Johnson) is going to be an elite player in the NHL, with the way he keeps progressing over time,” Vincent said. “But he needs to play minutes. He needs to be put in positions to be successful. We’re going to try to find a way to build his confidence up.”

By all accounts, Johnson, who has played in 96 NHL games, is handling his first assignment to AHL Cleveland about as well as could be expected.

Case in point: Johnson played Thursday’s game vs. Tampa Bay, then had a hard practice with the Blue Jackets on Friday in Nationwide Arena. It was widely assumed that Johnson’s AHL debut would be on Saturday, and the Jackets gave him that option.

Instead, he quickly made his way to Cleveland and dressed for Friday’s game, totaling two assists in a 7-3 loss to Providence. He had another assist on Saturday when the Monsters scored three third-period goals to beat Providence 5-4.

The healthy scratches in Columbus have not been fun, Johnson said. The third-period benching on Thursday was tough to take, too. But he’s handled it relatively well.

“I try not to let it affect me in a negative way,” Johnson told The Athletic. “I try to take everything in life and turn it into a positive. It’s some adversity. It sucks. It’s definitely pretty upsetting, but you just keep going and keep working.

“(Vincent’s) been good in communicating with me throughout everything, pretty open and honest. We can keep building our relationship and, hopefully, I can get more trust from him. I hope we’re working together for a very long time.”

There are a couple of things at work here with Johnson’s game.

First, the Blue Jackets lineup is a different beast right now than it was during most of last season. Johnson didn’t play big minutes — he averaged 14:30 per game — but there was so little competition for lineup spots and ice time that he was assured a spot.

The additions of Adam Fantilli and Dmitri Voronkov, the return of Alexandre Texier from Europe, and the return to health for Justin Danforth and Yegor Chinakhov have put five more regulars into the mix, giving Vincent much to consider when he puts together his lineup card.

The second issue?

“They don’t talk about sophomore slumps for no reason,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen said.

Center Cole Sillinger suffered through a second-year slump last season, dropping from 16 goals as a rookie in 2021-22 to only three goals in 64 games. Sillinger ended up in the AHL too, but his demotion was late in the season.

Johnson never seemed to have confidence issues as a rookie, but he looked rattled on Thursday against the Lightning. He coughed up the puck twice on an early third-period power play, requiring goaltender Elvis Merzlikins to make a clutch save to preserve a 2-2 tie.

Vincent didn’t play him again for the rest of the period.

Johnson has 1-2-3 and a minus-2 rating in eight games with the Jackets this season. He’s averaging 12:49 per game, about two minutes less per game than he averaged as a rookie.

“Expectations are a heavy, heavy load on a young player,” Kekäläinen said. “It’s totally normal that you go through ups and downs, especially when you have a really good first year. It’s all part of the progress.

“We always talk about growth rather than results. If the process is right, the results are going to come, sooner or later.”

The third issue is not a new one for Johnson. The Blue Jackets want him to add muscle and strength to his too-thin frame. He’s not strong enough to consistently win NHL puck battles, and he’s not strong enough for the Blue Jackets to consider playing him at center.

Vincent said the Blue Jackets have him on a specialized program in the hope that Johnson can add some bulk during the season, which is never easy. He’s listed at 6 feet, 178 pounds, but finished last season weighing less than 170 pounds.

“It’s going to take extra effort (from him),” Vincent said. “We’ll see the difference long-term. He’s 21 years old now. We want to see a difference when he’s 23, 24 or 25 years old, when he’s in his prime. That’s the goal.”

The hope, of course, is that Johnson’s prime years will be spent with Columbus.

When he switched agents last week, as first reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, it was noted that his new agent, Pat Brisson with Creative Artists Agency, also represented former Blue Jackets PL Dubois and Seth Jones, both of whom requested trades out of Columbus.

It should also be noted that Brisson, one of the most powerful agents in the NHL, also represents Fantilli and prospect center Luca Del Bel Belluz, currently playing with AHL Cleveland. He represented Zach Werenski until he changed agents two years ago.

Johnson said the agent change had nothing to do with his relationship with the Blue Jackets. He is a restricted free agent after the season.

“The simplest way to say it is that Pat’s a great agent and I want to work with the best guy,” said Johnson, who had been represented previously by Ross Gurney. “I think (Pat) will probably do the best for me. There’s not really anything too big with it.

“I saw some stuff (rumors on social media) and it’s nothing like that. Pat represents like 75 guys. I get that two (of his previous clients) asked for a trade out of Columbus, but it’s not a thing.”

Item No. 2: Corrective measures

Vincent’s coaching tactics have really been the story of the first month of the season. If anybody thought the Blue Jackets were in for an easier ride when Vincent took over for Mike Babcock just before training camp, they’ve been sorely mistaken.

It all went to a new level on Saturday, when Vincent benched Johnny Gaudreau for the final 16 minutes of the third period, letting him sit through two power plays late in the period and a two-minute stretch at the end of the game when the Jackets played with an extra attacker.


Pascal Vincent after benching Johnny Gaudreau: ‘I didn’t like his game’

The Jackets could have used Gaudreau. They lost 2-1 to the Washington Capitals, their only goal coming early in the second period on a Voronkov redirection.

Gaudreau was held without a shot on goal for the second time in four games. He played only 11:55, his fewest minutes since joining the Blue Jackets as a free agent two summers ago and the second-fewest minutes he’s played in 693 NHL games.

On Oct. 15, 2015, Gaudreau played 10:31 for Calgary in a 2-1 overtime win in Chicago. It was the sixth game of his NHL career. He wasn’t benched, he just didn’t play much.

This was Vincent’s boldest move yet. He has made it clear through his words and his actions that accountability is a bigger priority than short-term wins and losses, and he’s driven the point home by making surprise healthy scratches of the club’s best young players, Kirill Marchenko and Johnson.

But benching Gaudreau is quite another level, even if it’s easily justifiable. Gaudreau has only one goal, an empty-netter, and four assists through 11 games.

Asked what he’s thought of Vincent’s coaching through the first month of the season, Kekalainen was brief and blunt.

“High standards, high accountability,” he told The Athletic. “Those are all things that we want.”

Item No. 3: Jiricek staying put

Rookie David Jiricek has been a lineup fixture since the second game of the season, settling into the second pair with veteran Ivan Provorov. On Saturday, he played his 10th game of the season, which means the first year of his entry-level contract is now engaged.

It confirms what has been obvious: Jiricek’s not going anywhere.

Asked if the Blue Jackets have told Jiricek to seek permanent residence in Columbus — the 19-year-old is still living in an Arena District hotel — Kekäläinen said: “I don’t think we’ve told him that yet, but we should. Thanks for reminding me.”

“He’s playing well and he’s going to be ours for a long time,” Kekäläinen continued. “You accept the ups and downs with that level of talent, so I don’t think he’s going anywhere.

“He’s moving the puck well, positioning himself well. Once he gets more comfortable and confident, we’ll see him do things in the offensive end that we’ve seen him do at the American League level.”

The knock on Jiricek, as is the case with most offensively inclined young defensemen, has been an overly aggressive approach to decision-making. Vincent and Provorov have helped Jiricek redefine in his own mind what a successful shift looks like in the NHL.

In 10 games, he has 1-2-3 and an even rating.

“Early, in his first few games, he was overly aggressive on the forecheck, pinching down on the wall,” Vincent said. “Now his reads are a little bit better. We have no worries about his offensive mindset, his skills. He’s got a bomb. That’s all gonna come.

“But it’s realizing that on a lot of shifts in the NHL, nothing’s happening. There’s no scoring chances for, no scoring chances against. You don’t have to create something or force something offensively every shift, and it can still be a good shift. That’s OK. That’s the NHL.”

To keep Jiricek in the lineup, the Blue Jackets have made a healthy scratch of Andrew Peeke for 10 straight games and Adam Boqvist for the last eight.

Item No. 4: Snacks

Kekäläinen has been trying to swing trades for months now in an attempt to reduce his roster glut. It’s worth noting that Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Larry Simmons was in Columbus for Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay, as was Philadelphia Flyers head pro scout Dave Brown and senior advisor Bob Murray.

Speaking of roster flexibility … Marchenko can play only two more NHL games and Sillinger can play six more games before they both would require waivers in order to be sent to AHL Cleveland.

With his next faceoff win, presumably in the first period on Monday in Florida, captain Boone Jenner will have won more faceoffs than any other player with the Blue Jackets. He won 15 of 22 draws on Saturday in Washington, giving him 3,776 faceoff wins, tied with Brandon Dubinsky atop the organization’s annals. Jenner’s 54.3 percent success rate on draws is slightly better than Dubinsky’s (53.4 percent) and ranks third in franchise history among players with two seasons or more in a Blue Jackets sweater. Manny Malhotra (56.7) is tops on the list, followed by Antoine Vermette (55.3).

Thursday’s game vs. Tampa Bay got us thinking about that 2019 playoff series sweep by the Blue Jackets, which seems like yesterday and, somehow, forever ago. Only three Blue Jackets who played in that series remain on the roster: forwards Texier and Jenner and defenseman Werenski. Only eight Lightning players remain: forwards Anthony Cirelli, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos; defensemen Erik Cernak, Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev; and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Another good sign for goaltender Daniil Tarasov, who has been out since early training camp with a knee injury: Tarasov traveled with the Blue Jackets on this two-game trip through Washington and Florida, which is usually an indication that a player is getting close. Tarasov is eligible to go to AHL Cleveland for a rehabilitation assignment before he’s activated on the NHL roster. That seems likely because he hasn’t played in weeks. Another good reason: Backup goaltender Spencer Martin has a .922 save percentage in four outings.

Del Bel Belluz (17:26) and Josh Dunne (18:58) scored late goals to help AHL Cleveland pull off a 5-4 comeback win over Providence on Saturday. Del Bel Belluz, the Blue Jackets’ second-round pick (No. 44) in 2022, was a frequent healthy scratch early this season but now has 2-3-5 in four games with the Monsters. Cleveland is currently second in the AHL’s North Division, two points behind first-place Rochester.

Former Ohio State defenseman Mason Lohrei made his NHL debut this week with Boston, which drafted him in the second round (No. 58) in 2020. Lohrei is the first Louisiana-born player to make it to the NHL, which got us thinking: Which U.S. states have not been represented yet in the league? The NHL stats department provides the answer: Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming. Blue Jackets forward Mathieu Olivier is the only NHLer who was born in Mississippi. He was born in Biloxi while his father, Simon, played for the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL.

The San Jose Sharks (0-10-1) are still looking for their first win, matching the 1943-44 New York Rangers (0-11-0) for the longest winless streak in NHL history. That Rangers club actually started 0-14-1 before claiming its first win in December that season. The Blue Jackets of 2015-16 hold the modern NHL record with eight regulation losses to start a season. The Sharks avoided matching that with their only point of the season in their second game, a shootout loss to Colorado.

(Photo of Kent Johnson: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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