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2021 NHL Draft Profile: Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson is a highly effective and efficient two-way defenseman

2015 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the easiest ways for a prospect to drop to be undervalued in the draft is to be small. This is especially true for defensemen, who are required to be much more physical than, say, a winger. But the NHL is slowly moving away from that. There were 59 defensemen to play in the NHL this past season who were shorter than 6’0”. Ten years ago, there was 42. Ten years before that, there was only 28.

The game of hockey in the NHL is moving more towards speed and possession, including dynamic skill at every position on the ice. Now we have shorter defensemen like Quinn Hughes, Samuel Girard, Adam Fox, and our own Rasmus Sandin all listed as 5’11” or shorter that are showing how smaller defensemen can provide plenty of value to teams.

And that’s not just the case for offense. Smaller defensemen can be effective defensively too, especially on transition defense. You don’t have to be big or physical in order to break up transition attempts through the neutral zone, to deflect passes and close on the puck carrier to force them into turning it over or dumping it in harmlessly. And some studies by very smart hockey people have shown that the biggest impact a defenseman can have on suppressing offense by the other team is not by defending in your own zone. It’s by shutting down transitions so they can’t even get set up with possession in your end.

Which brings me to the interesting case of Brent Johnson, a small-ish defenseman who came out of nowhere this year to put on an exciting display of two-way ability.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Brent Johnson is a 5’11” right shot defenseman from the hockey hotbed of Dallas, Texas. He’s followed a bit of an unconventional development path before this year, where had a huge breakout season right when it matters. Two years ago, Johnson was playing in a Dallas U16 junior league, with only okay numbers — like, 10 points in 30 games in a minor Texas junior league. Last year, he moved to Michigan and played in the Little Caesars (sigh) U16 development league, and the first signs of his breakout emerged.

This year, as a draft-eligible rookie, Johnson jumped to play in the USHL — his first experience in a major junior league. He was immediately played on his team’s top pairing, and in all situations. Suffice to say, the team he was playing for was not very good — they finished 2nd last in the league. But given the chance, he blossomed. He finished the season scoring 11 goals and 32 points in 47 games. He finished second in the league for draft eligible defensemen in points, and finished 2nd among all defensemen in even strength primary points.

He also drove play for them in a huge way. As a team, Sioux Falls had a sub-40% shot share. I unfortunately don’t know the shot share splits, since the above stat was cited in an article by an EP writer who was tracking Johnson’s games manually. However, when Johnson was on the ice at even strength, they had 59% of the goal share and only 37% when he wasn’t on the ice.

It was a surprising breakout season that finally landed him on draft lists for the first time. But as a smallish defenseman at 5’11” and only 165 lbs, he didn’t have any hype going into this year to build on. He also had a season ending shoulder injury right before the USHL BioSteel prospect showcase, and U18 World Junior Championship. So he missed out on playing on a bigger stage against the best of the best of draft eligible prospects.

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: 84th
  • Will Scouch: 35th
  • Scott Wheeler: 59th
  • Elite Prospects: 101st
  • Dobber Prospects: 33rd
  • Smaht Scouting: 37th

THE GOOD: SKATING, PASSING, TRANSITION DEFENSE

All the good parts of Brent Johnson’s game come back to his skating. In the two games I watched of his earlier this year, it’s what stood out the most. He almost always looked like one of the best skaters on the ice, and could pretty easily slice through the other team at times with the puck.

Johnson is not necessarily the fastest skater, but he is very mobile. He has quick acceleration and can make quick cuts and maneuvers to keep up with most forwards. It also helps him on the other side of the puck, as he can be an adept puck carrier through the neutral zone, and along the blueline in the offensive zone. His ability to defend through the neutral zone and attack on offense would not be possible without his skating.

From Paul Zuk at Smaht Scouting:

Arguably one of Johnson’s best traits is his skating, as he can accelerate in a phone booth, and he has one of the nicer strides among 2021 draft eligible defensemen. He does have more of an upright stride than most, but that doesn’t seem to hinder him much at all. Johnson also seems to have somewhat of a more narrow stance, both while accelerating as well as coasting.

When it comes to edgework, Johnson has some of the best when it comes to defenseman in the USHL. He’s able to escape pressure when pressing on in the offensive zone and elude defenders with great success. To add, Johnson can use his combination of excellent edges and his cat-like agility to navigate through all zones of the ice, which very few rookie defenders in the USHL can do.

On the offensive side, Johnson was one of the USHL’s top goal scoring defenseman with 11 goals. But he doesn’t necessarily have a great shot. He has a good wrist shot that is accurate, and that he can shoot into specific areas for tips and rebounds. Where he excels more is with his passing and playmaking, especially to drive offensive transitions. He can carry and pass the puck out of his own end, or carry and pass it into the offensive zone. He is also a capable powerplay quarterback, where he racked up a greater ratio of assists than goals compared to his even strength production. In the games I watched he wasn’t what I would call flashy, and not necessarily that dynamic. But he was very effective and efficient, not often wasting plays or turning the puck over with a bad pass.

From Tony Ferrari at Dobber Prospects:

His ability to turn play around without a second thought at times is impressive because it seems effortless. Moving up ice in transition is a strength of the mobile blueliner from Texas, whether it be with his feet or his passing, although he can get caught a bit going to the homerun play sometimes resulting in an icing. In the offensive zone, Johnson is quick with his thinking and has the ability to pivot and stay mobile along the blueline or pinching down the walls. He can freelance an bit with crafty puck skills and agile feet but he isn’t necessarily the blow-your-pants-off type of defender in the offensive zone, rather opting to just make the play look as simple as possible, often making it look easy to be productive.

Now let’s talk defense. I would not say that he was very flashy or noticeable, but overall quite effective. I have a hard time putting what I personally saw from him into words, aside from saying he was quiet and capable. I have read that he can play physical despite his size, but I didn’t really see it that much. He was effective and aggressive in shutting down forwards through the neutral zone by closing the gap on them and harassing them with his stick. Even if he didn’t poke or sweep it away to cause a turnover, he would pressure them into dumping it in. Once in the defensive zone, all I can really say is that he didn’t make any major gaffes in terms of coverage.

From Will Scouch at McKeen’s Hockey:

To me, Brent Johnson is significantly marked by two high-end strengths. There is inconsistent, but often excellent two-to-three-layer rush defense, and remarkable problem solving and pass lane identification and creation ability. If the situation calls for simple stick checks with an ability to quickly turn pucks over directly to linemates, he’s capable of it. If that doesn’t work, he can impose himself physically, and even if his strength isn’t as high end, he’s willing to get involved. Johnson shows a strong ability to sustain pressure even on controlled entries to continuously make defensive cycle creation difficult. He finds open ice post-turnover remarkably well, and extremely often with the puck.

THE FLAWS: EXPERIENCE, STRENGTH AND CONSISTENCY

Johnson has his issues, however, and I think it mostly comes back to his lack of experience against this level of competition. His play can be inconsistent, both offensively and defensively. He also played on a pretty bad team and was asked to carry them in every zone on the ice as a rookie who was brand new to the league.

So offensively, while he is a good skater, puck handler and passer, he can force things at times. While I thought he looked great in the times I saw him, he was prone to skating into multiple defenders who focused in on him, or to missing on a longer pass. I don’t know if he was just used to being able to do that in lesser leagues, or because he was simply one of the few on the ice who could do the heavy lifting, or both. But that’s something I’d like to see him simplify over time, and learn where to pick his spots.

From Mitch Brown at EP Rinkside (paywalled):

Instead, the results are the product of skills without planning. Limited ankle flexion, and subsequently, a lack of depth prevents him from exploding out of one move into the next – that’s a projection concern, but similar players have far better results. Those players shoulder-check before touching the puck, then map out the ice and quickly move the puck. It’s only after beating the first forechecker that Johnson starts looking for options, and by then, he’s often skating right into the next forechecker, and the cycle repeats.

On the defensive side, his play in his own end can also be inconsistent. Considering it never looked that spectacular to me to begin with, that would be a concern for me as he plays at higher levels against harder competition. He could also be inconsistent on transition defense too, although in this case he seemed to just be too aggressive at times. He may step up to close out on a guy and try to throw a hit or box him out, and whiff on it. Or he may take himself out of position and leave his partner defending an odd-man rush. This is another area where I think he just needs more experience to learn when to be aggressive and when to play it safe.

From Will Scouch:

At times, Johnson can lose focus and seem to forget the pace of play he’s dealing with, invite too much pressure and not have the quickness or strength to cover his mistake. There were moments where you just wished Johnson would put in a bit more to close out cycles and create turnovers, or cheating in the defensive zone a bit to look for breakouts that made more work for himself than necessary. A loss of focus played into the inconsistency regarding his physical play and pressure management, so improving his ability to move pucks a bit quicker and not trying to force things as much without completely losing that skill would be ideal.

And the last part is something that’s said of just about every prospect, and especially the smaller ones: Brent Johnson does need to get stronger. His height isn’t so short, but he is pretty light. He may not be afraid to play physical, though he doesn’t really hunt for big hits. He more tries to close guys out against the boards, but even in the USHL he has issues with getting overpowered and pushed around by bigger, stronger opponents. Getting stronger will come over time, but if he makes it a focus he will turn his defensive zone play into less of a weakness and he can afford to be more aggressive on defense.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

Texas minor junior leagues aren’t exactly known as prospect factories churning out first round picks every year. But once Johnson went to Michigan and played in a pretty well know developmental league, he started to blossom. Once he got to the USHL and given a bit role, he grew even more. More than one public scout made the claim that he was arguably the best overall defenseman in the whole of the league — not just as a draft eligible, but all defensemen. Now, the USHL is not at the level of the CHL, but it has closed the cap considerably in recent years, and Johnson managed to get into the conversation as a late addition to Team USA’s U18 tournament roster, after they had some injuries force others to back out.

The Leafs seem to like small, smart, and skilled defensemen who can use their skating and defensive reads to shut down transition attempts while also driving offense at a good clip. Last year, they took Topi Niemela in the third round, a 5’11” defenseman who shares a sort-of similar profile. Bob McKenzie had Niemela ranked 38th overall in his final rankings, but he fell all the way to 64th where the Leafs took him. Considering his injury, lack of big tournament play, or even playoffs, I can’t help but think that Johnson could fall too — McKenzie already had him ranked 84th in his mid-season rankings, before his injury.

As you may have noticed from my other profiles, I’m very much in favour of trading down in this draft. Not just because it will help the Leafs get more picks back that they traded at the deadline, but because a lot of players I am interested in for their second round pick are all ranked by Bob in the third round. So unless Stankoven or Morrow fall to 57th overall where the Leafs will pick, I am all for trading down and taking two of the other guys I have profiled.

Johnson will likely not be a top pairing guy, and it might be a bit of a long shot for him to be a top-4 guy either. But he also seems like a bit of a late bloomer, and with the right development he could be a valuable two-way defenseman who drives offense and defense, and can play on your second powerplay unit. Thankfully for him and any team who takes Johnson in the draft, he has committed to the University of North Dakota in the NCAA. They are a good program and a bit of a defensive factory, having recruited and graduated the likes of Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Troy Stecher, and former Leafs’ blue chip prospect Andrew MacWilliam!

Between his time with UND and potentially the Marlies after, he would be in good hands to develop his two-way game... assuming the Sens don’t draft him first.

Poll

Should the Leafs use their second round pick on Brent Johnson?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Yes, straight up he’s my first choice
    (5 votes)
  • 29%
    Only if he’s the best remaining of the others I like
    (22 votes)
  • 44%
    I’d only trade down for him
    (33 votes)
  • 20%
    Meh, pass
    (15 votes)
75 votes total Vote Now