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2019 NHL Draft prospect profile: Ryan Johnson’s agility could turn him into an NHL puck-mover

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He won’t wow you with his current game, but his potential is worth a gamble.

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Ryan Johnson is an intriguing option for teams looking to furnish their prospect pool with a left-handed puck-moving defenceman. He spent the last season playing in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede and will join the University of Minnesota in 2019-20 to start his collegiate career.

Birthplace: Irvine, CA, USA
Shoots: Left
Position: Defence
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 161 lbs.
Team: Sioux Falls Stampede

He didn’t impress with his numbers in what will be his one and only year of Junior hockey. He put up six goals and added 18 assists for a total of 24 points in 52 games while acting as a top defenceman for the Stampede. What makes him interesting are his tools, and the perspective that he could develop them in his years at university.

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Johnson is very mobile, and can escape the opposition with his agility. In his zone, forecheckers sent to strip him of the puck are often left behind by his cutbacks as he waits for them to get close, fakes going in one direction, and uses his edges to turn the other way to gain the open ice.

His feet are his best asset. He never feels trapped even against a heavy forechecking system as he can quickly and smoothly escape with the puck.

Johnson wears #7 with the Sioux Falls Stampede

He also contributes to offensive-zone entries with his elusiveness. He can carry the puck in from the defensive blue line, finding seams through the neutral-zone coverage to slide in between opponents and break in. Rapidly shuffling the puck, he makes it hard for opponents to poke-check him.

As he continues to work on his skating, he will add more speed to complement his four-way mobility. He could still be faster when he joins his team up the ice. Bringing his feet back lower to the ice and completely under him after a forward push would help him get more powerful strides and push his transition ability to the next level.

On offence, Johnson loves to skate in from the blue line. In the same way he pulls off moves on opponents low in his own zone, he showcases effective fakes to create space for himself to jump up for a shot on net or a pass to the slot.

In the sequence below, the defenceman is positioned at the point and turns his shoulders toward a teammate at his right. The opponent skating towards him thinks that he is passing there, so he extends his stick to cover the passing lane. But Johnson doesn’t pass. He attacks wide on the now off-balance opponent, uses the wall to sneak the puck by him, and moves up to the slot with rapid crossovers, gaining separation.

Head up, he scans the ice for options. At first look, there is no friendly stick open for a pass, so he steps to the goal line and slides the puck in front of the net for a forward who had shaken his coverage and earned a chance to bang the puck in a couple of feet from the goalie.

On top of his many tools, it’s clear Johnson has a lot of poise in possession. He rarely gets fazed when the puck is on his stick, and isn’t afraid to hold on to it and make riskier plays. But that is also the other side of the coin when evaluating the prospect.

Rankings (not all rankings are final)

Future Considerations: #51
Hockey Prospect: #18
McKenzie/TSN: #30
NHL Central Scouting: #36 (NA skaters)

Johnson’s decision-making can go from a slight issue to problematic depending on the game. The defenceman will definitely need to harness his capabilities to unleash them at just the right time, not causing turnovers in his zone or while skating up the ice. Those situations, with the defenceman carrying the puck behind his line of forwards, usually create the best scoring chances for the opposing team.

His play away from the puck suffers from the same mental lapses. He was a regular penalty-killer for Sioux Falls. Good with his stick, he could cut passing lanes and deflect shots away, but he was sometime a second behind a play, or too aggressive in trying to break it up, leaving more dangerous options behind him.

Timing, playing quicker, and, most of all, risk management are aspects of the game that the defenceman will need to improve with experience. The current inconsistency of his play might not follow him through his whole career, but they are indications that he will need more time, probably a few years at Minnesota to refine his game and adapt it to the professional level.

It’s probable that Ryan Johnson is selected somewhere in the second round. His production and weaknesses don’t make him a likely first-rounder, although it’s possible that a team falls in love with his skills and decides that they deserve the patience of their organization. After all, puck-movers are one of the most-sought-after commodities for NHL teams, and the best way to get them is to draft them.