American Hockey League

Johnson rejoins Blue Jackets after scorching AHL stint

Kent Johnson had just settled into playing for the Cleveland Monsters when he got the news Thursday that all AHL players hope to receive.

Johnson, 21, was recalled by the Blue Jackets to replace Cole Sillinger, who sustained an undisclosed injury during a 4-2 loss Wednesday to the Montreal Canadiens. As Sillinger saw a specialist about his injury, Johnson practiced with the Blue Jackets after making a two-hour trek down I-71 to Nationwide Arena.

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The first AHL stint of his career lasted 10 games and included Johnson tearing through the league with five goals, 10 assists, 15 points and a +5 plus/minus rating. He centered a top line with Mikael Pyyhtia on the left wing and Emil Bemstrom on the right.

“I was just trying not to focus on it at all, just not think about being called up and think about it as if I’m a Monster for the rest of the year,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t really thinking about (being recalled), but, obviously, it’s great to happen and I’m really happy to be here.”

Johnson played last season with the Blue Jackets, compiling 16-24-40 in 79 games as an NHL rookie. He also started this season in Columbus before he was assigned to the AHL on Nov. 3, culminating a slow start. After not standing out in the preseason, Johnson was scratched for the Jackets’ season-opener and struggled to gain his footing.

He was sent to Cleveland with two objectives. The first was to regain his confidence with the puck on his stick and the second was to continue adding strength in the gym. Those remain his goals in Columbus.

“We sent him down with something very positive in mind, for him to get his confidence back,” Blue Jackets coach Pascal Vincent said. “He took it like a man, he understood, and he did it right. Now, there’s an opportunity for him to come back and we’ll go from there.”

Johnson slotted into the Jackets’ top line in his first practice back. He skated on the right side of a unit that included star Johnny Gaudreau at left wing and captain Boone Jenner at center. Vincent said there was consideration made about playing Johnson at center, but the opportunity to replace Sillinger in that role will first go to Russian rookie Dmitri Voronkov

For now, Johnson just wants his AHL success to roll into the NHL regardless of where he plays. He was a force in Cleveland, helping the Monsters rise to the top of the AHL North before leaving.

“I played a lot,” Johnson said. “I played in a lot of situations … 3-on-3 (overtime), playing center, which is good getting reps in the middle, taking faceoffs and playing a lot on the power play. It was just great to have the puck a lot and really get my game going.”

Columbus Blue Jackets not ruling out additional AHL time for Kent Johnson’s development

Johnson bristles when his confidence is called into question.

He’d been a top player on every team prior to joining the Blue Jackets, who drafted him fifth overall in 2021 following a standout freshman year at the University of Michigan. He doesn’t feel confidence is an issue, but his timing and rhythm were off.

Johnson said those areas have improved since going to the AHL, which is a detour he hopes to avoid the rest of this season and for the remainder of his career. There’s no assurances, however, that another trip to Cleveland won’t be assigned. 

“Obviously, we don’t want to go up and down (with him),” Vincent said. “That’s not the plan whatsoever, but a plan is in place and hopefully we stick with the plan. But performance will dictate what we do next.”

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen agreed. Asked if Johnson’s recall was more about readiness or filling a need with Sillinger injured, he said it was a mix of both.

“As with anything in the NHL, you have to earn your ice time,” Kekalainen said. “What I said before stands. We don’t want him to be an up-and-down player, but he had a good 10-game stretch (in Cleveland) and now the injury to Sillinger opens a spot in the everyday lineup for him to play, not just be part of the 23-man roster.”

That last part is key for the development of all young players, not just Johnson. It’s hard to get better while sitting out, which Johnson did twice in the Jackets’ first 10 games before joining the Monsters.

“He’s a young man and he needs to be playing,” Kekalainen said. “It’s like the situation with (rookie defenseman David Jiricek). He needs to play, too, so if that’s not here, there shouldn’t be a problem going (to the AHL) to keep playing.”

Vincent couldn’t agree more. After five years of coaching the AHL’s Manitoba Moose for the Winnipeg Jets before joining the Blue Jackets in 2021, he’s convinced that league helps players develop useful NHL skills.

“I’ve never seen a guy who’s spent too much time in the American league and that created a struggle at the NHL level,” Vincent said. “There’s a real value to play in that league, and we felt at the moment that it was the right decision for Kent. The goal was go there, play the best you can, keep developing, keep getting stronger. We had a plan for him.”

More: Kent Johnson scores ‘incredible’ lacrosse-style goal in Columbus Blue Jackets OT win

They still do while he’s in the NHL, but another trip up I-71 shouldn’t be ruled out just yet. It’s now up to Johnson and how his return to Columbus goes.

“I always have good confidence,” he said. “It’s something that doesn’t really waver for me, even if I’m not getting the points. I know it can come and go, but I know I’m a good player no matter what. But I definitely feel more in a rhythm. I just played a lot of hockey and got a lot of touches, so I feel really good.” 

bhedger@dispatch.com

@BrianHedger

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