Impressive start for Johnson
Already, it appears as if the conditional fifth-round bantam draft pick the Red Deer Rebels shipped to the Vancouver Giants in return for forward Wyatt Johnson will amount to a bargain.
The Rebels obtained Johnson’s rights in September, but had to wait until last weekend for the 17-year-old centre to appear in his first Western Hockey League games.
Head coach Jesse Wallin was anything but disappointed with the Saskatoon product’s debut.
“I was really impressed with him, I thought he played really well in both games,” said Wallin, in reference to Johnson’s play in a 3-1 Friday loss to Kelowna and a 4-3 shootout win over Calgary the following night.
“He was just feeling his way through that first game and we (coaching staff) were just getting a feel for him, but he performed really well. It was the same thing the next night. He just seemed to get better and better as he got more comfortable and in that third period we bumped him up and threw him out there every third shift. He took the ice time and ran with it.”
Johnson skated alongside Turner Elson and Joel Hamilton during the final period of Saturday’s contest and picked up an assist on a goal by Elson.
“Those are great guys to play with, both really good hockey players,” said Johnson, prior to a practice session on Tuesday.
The five-foot-11, 170-pound forward attended the Vancouver Giants training camp in August as a listed player, but was released following a solid showing and returned to his midget team in Saskatoon. Then, during a training-camp scrimmage with the AAA Blazers, he took a hit and sustained a concussion.
“It was kind of an up and down recovery from there,” he said. “I felt fine for awhile then found out a couple of days later that I had a concussion.”
The symptoms persisted after the Rebels acquired his services and he arrived in Red Deer. And again, it was a back and forth ride with recurring headaches.
“For a couple of days I’d feel better, then I’d feel worse, so it was kind of an up and down road,” said Johnson. “It’s really good to be back playing.”
Johnson was OK with his weekend debut performance, considering what he was up against.
“I was happy with it,” he said. “Obviously there’s going to be a bit of an adjustment period with this being my first time in the WHL. It’s going to take awhile to get used to the speed of the game, but hopefully I’ll be able to adjust pretty quickly.”
Johnson was a productive player last winter as a rookie with the Blazers, finishing second in regular-season team scoring with 14 goals and 45 points in 42 games and adding a goal and an assist in four playoff outings.
He’s unlikely to be a point-per-game player in his initial WHL season but is confident that he can produce offensively at the major junior level.
“You always want to contribute in any way you can and I hope to chip in that way,” he said.
But at the same time . . .
“For sure, there’s a lot more to being a good player at this level than getting points,” he said. “The D-men are way bigger and they are better skaters and smarter. It’s just a whole other level, so you have to be smarter, too.”
Wallin has no doubt that Johnson has the intelligence and an otherwise overall game to excel with the Rebels.
“He’s a very smart player. He plays with grit and he has some offensive ability — he can skate and make a play,” said the Rebels bench boss. “I just like the fact that he’s gritty and he gets to the tough areas and he thinks the game well. He understands the game from both sides of the puck. I thought he made some very intelligent plays on the weekend.”
• The Rebels practise this afternoon and then depart for Spokane at 10:30 p.m. Red Deer takes on the Chiefs on Friday to kick off a five-game road trip that also includes stops in Kennewick, Wash., (Tri-City), Portland and Everett and concludes Nov. 9 at Kelowna.