The Ottawa Senators once again have a top-10 selection at the NHL draft, although this year is higher than expected thanks to a late-season winning streak. It’s a significant improvement from the previous season, and a lot of it has to do with the team’s drafting and development. Many of the core members of the current roster, namely Tim Stützle, Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Thomas Chabot were all originally Senators’ picks, as were important depth pieces in Nick Paul and Parker Kelly. Add in Jake Sanderson, last year’s fifth-overall pick, as well as potential future supporting members Egor Sokolov, Ridly Greig, Shane Pinto, and Lassi Thomson, and there isn’t much the franchise has to do but wait for everyone to develop.
Related: 2021 NHL Draft Guide
That puts the Senators in an excellent position this July in that they really can’t mess up this pick. Whether they take a forward or defenseman, it’s all icing on the cake for a team that has taken the time to create one of the best farm systems in the NHL. Even a goalie wouldn’t hurt the team, since that’s an area the Senators may find themselves needing in two or three years, despite many fans’ opposition to the move.
This is the mentality I took into The Hockey Writers‘ annual mock draft as I assumed the role of the Senators general manager, and despite preparing to grab several top prospects, from Cole Sillinger to Chaz Lucius, I was pleasantly surprised to have the University of Michigan’s Kent Johnson fall into my lap and leapt on the opportunity to add him to Ottawa.
Another High-Skill Forward
Yes, the Senators take yet another high-skill forward with a top-10 pick, something THW’s head scout Matthew Zator poked fun at during our draft chat. But if Johnson is available 10th overall, Ottawa can’t pass on him. He was one of the best freshmen in all of the NCAA, leading all draft-eligible players in scoring with 27 points in 26 games. It follows one of the biggest seasons in British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) history when he put up a 101-point 2019-20 season in just 52 games with the Trail Smoke Eaters. The last person to put up that kind of points-per-game pace was Scott Gomez back in 1997, who went on to win the Calder Trophy in 2000.
The Senators indeed have plenty — arguably too many — options at center, and Johnson grew up playing that position. But he has shown the ability to line up on the left-wing and he did so during much of the 2020-21 season on a line with potential first-overall pick Matthew Beniers. The placement allowed Johnson to emerge as one of the most creative players of the 2021 Draft class. Without the pressure of playing up the middle, he was able to use his top-notch ability more frequently, always ready to capitalize on a mistake or take control of the play. He’s drawn some comparisons to Mitch Marner and Patrick Kane, tries to emulate Elias Pettersson, and projects to be a 70-80 point player at the very least. That’s someone that any team can use, no matter his position.
He also hasn’t been the most prolific goal scorer, something that the Senators will be looking for in their top pick this year. Currently, Formenton and Josh Norris are the team’s top snipers, with few top-six options behind them in the farm system. Sokolov could end up there, but his long-term potential is still up in the air, as is Roby Jarventie’s, who made his AHL debut at the end of the season. Adding another proven scoring option with this year’s pick is likely the team’s best option, based on who will be available.
According to Johnson’s stats, he appears to be more of a playmaker and is a natural center. But if we look deeper, we’ll find that midway through 2020-21, he was leading Michigan with a 20.7 percent shooting percentage. That’s equivalent to Alex DeBrincat’s percentage this year, who’s one of the best young snipers in the game today. Johnson also led the team in power-play goals with three this season, showing his effectiveness on special teams, something the Senators could also benefit from.
Overall, Johnson is the type of player that makes others around him better. When paired with Beniers, he was always in the right spot, ready to pick up a loose puck or provide the offensive support needed for his center to thrive. With Ottawa now boasting several future stars, they need someone who can play a very smart, patient game that will allow them to play their style. That player is arguably Johnson, and he could give the Senators a very strong top-six group aimed at capturing the Stanley Cup in the future.
Always Take the Best Player Available
While he’s not exactly what the Senators are looking for, Johnson is not a player you pass on just because he’s not a perfect fit right now. He’ll likely remain at university for at least another season, potentially two, as he is a bit undersized and needs to put on some weight before making the jump to the professional levels. By the time is ready, a plethora of things could have changed in a franchise, and suddenly they need a playmaking winger with a great nose for the net. With him projecting to go between sixth and ninth overall, it would be a steal if he fell to Ottawa.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.