On Friday, the Blue Jackets sent Kent Johnson, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 Draft, to the AHL after a turbulent start to his second full NHL season that saw him score 1-2--3 in eight games, be a healthy scratch twice, and get benched in Thursday's game.
The decision to send him to Cleveland felt extremely possible after Johnson didn't play in the final 14:03 against Tampa Bay after a nearly costly defensive-zone giveaway while on the power play. That play felt like the straw that broke the camel's back on what has been a less-than-ideal start to Johnson's first contract year as a pro.
Among 24 Blue Jackets skaters to play in a game this season, Johnson ranks 23rd in both wins above replacement (-0.2) and expected wins above replacement (-0.3), according to evolving-hockey.com.
While Johnson being sent down is a concerning development, it's not time to panic, at least not yet. There are several factors that should give fans hope that this demotion is just a small bump in the road in what hopefully is a long and successful career for Johnson.
In his AHL debut on Friday, Johnson recorded two power-play assists, including a sweet feed to Carson Meyer.
First, there's precedent to this type of decision. Montreal Canadiens star winger Cole Caufield entered the league at the end of the 2020-21 season and scored 4-1--5 in 10 regular season games before posting 4-8--12 in 20 playoff games on a run to the Stanley Cup Final. However, after recording just one assist through the first 10 games of the 2021-22 season, Caufield was sent to the AHL, where he scored 2-3--5 in six games. After he was recalled, he posted 1-6--7 in his next 20 games before the team fired their head coach, Dominique Ducharme, and hired Martin St. Louis. In the 37 games St. Louis coached that season, Caufield scored 22-13--35 and looked like the elite goal-scorer he had been projected to be.
This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison as Caufield's offensive success only began once St. Louis took over and Pascal Vincent isn't going anywhere--nor should he as he's done a fine job so far--but the fact that there is very recent precedent of a young player finding early success and then struggling should prevent fans from panicking.
Another feather in Johnson's cap is what he did last year. In the last four full seasons (2019-20 to 2022-23), there have been just 20 instances of a player 20 years old or younger scoring 40 points in a single season, according to stathead.com. That's what Johnson did in 2022-23, and it was no accident.
For Johnson, his playmaking ability is off-the-charts, and he has a track record of success at every level of hockey he's ever played at.
Johnson has proved he can score at the NHL level. Now it's about getting to a point where he can do it consistently. Does that involve the 6-foot-178-pound forward getting bigger and stronger? We will see.
But for now, it's important to remember that he's just 21 years old and that growth is not always linear.
Is this development a concern? Sure. Is it time to panic? Nope.