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Dallas Stars centre Wyatt Johnston took unique path to Western Conference final

Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) works to get the puck past Dallas Stars centre Wyatt Johnston (53) during the first period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) works to get the puck past Dallas Stars centre Wyatt Johnston (53) during the first period of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Wyatt Johnston was preparing for his next game. He had no idea when it would arrive.

The teenage centre had played 53 times in the Ontario Hockey League when COVID-19 abruptly shuttered the junior circuit in March 2020.

The following campaign was then cancelled outright without a single puck shot or saved due to health and safety concerns.

Johnston's team — the Windsor Spitfires — was out of action for 19 months.

"It was tough," said the Toronto product.

Hunkered down back at home in Canada's biggest city meant long periods of lockdown and not many options.

"Biggest thing was finding different ways to train," the 21-year-old recalled. "Got some gym equipment so I was able to work out in my garage. The biggest thing was just my love for the game — always wanting to get better, keep working on my game and being out on those outdoor rinks.

"You can spend a lot of time out there."

With big NHL dreams, Johnston would play just seven competitive games in his 2021 draft year, all with Canada at the under-18 world championships in a checking role.

That tournament, however, just so happened to be held in Frisco, Texas, at a sports complex in suburban Dallas that includes the Stars' practice facility.

The club already had Johnston on its radar. That event pretty much sealed the deal at a time when various junior leagues either didn't play or had limited schedules, which left scouts without much of the usual prospect information.

The Stars traded down from the 15th pick and took Johnston at No. 23 before using the other selection acquired from the Detroit Red Wings on fellow forward Logan Stankoven — the Canadian Hockey League player the following season — in the second round.

"Pretty crazy draft for every NHL team going into it — they weren't really sure," Dallas captain Jamie Benn said. "But apparently our guys were sure about (the Johnston) pick. He's stepped in right from Day 1. An impressive, intelligent hockey player."

Stars general manager Jim Nill, whose team is taking on the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final, credited director of scouting Joe McDonnell with the move.

"His staff had a real good feel where they felt Wyatt was gonna fall in the draft," Nill said. "They did their homework … it's not like he was a highly visible player."

Developing in junior

Johnston returned to junior in 2021-22 and broke out with 46 goals and 124 points in 68 games to earn OHL player of the year honours.

The Stars kept him for a nine-game audition coming out of training camp the following October, but weren't sure he was ready for the NHL's bright lights on a full-time basis.

A strong road trip through Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston — a difficult gauntlet for most players new to the pro game — convinced Nill and his staff.

Windsor GM Bill Bowler watched Johnston develop in junior despite the difficult pandemic circumstances. He isn't surprised by his former player's rise.

"We witnessed how good he was," Bowler said in a phone interview. "You never know how long it takes a kid to adapt or to get acclimated to the NHL, but he's a special player and a special person."

The six-foot-two, 184-pound Johnston, who lives with veteran teammate Joe Pavelski and his family, put up 24 goals and 41 points as rookie with the Stars.

He followed that up with a 32-goal, 65-point output this season that probably would have seen him score 40 if not for a 16-game drought.

Integral piece

Having taken a unique path to the NHL, Johnston is now an integral piece.

"Pretty crazy," Dallas defenceman Chris Tanev said of that paltry seven-game season in 2020-21. "We know he can score and make plays, but he's out there taking faceoffs on the penalty kill, taking faceoffs when you're up 6-on-5, doing all the little things against the top guys that most 21-year-olds aren't."

Those details helped him earn the trust of Stars head coach Pete DeBoer.

"Making sure I'm being a good two-way forward," Johnston said. "That's always been a big part of my game. If you're not taking care of both ends of the ice, you're gonna get burned pretty badly."

Bowler saw the same approach in junior while he was putting up outrageous offensive numbers.

"There's not a lot of flash," said the Windsor GM. "But I haven't seen the kid make a mistake since I've known him. He just does everything right. The hockey brain and competitiveness is what separates him.

"An ultimate pro. There's no maintenance at all. A solid young man that we're just so proud of."

Johnston knew during those dark days and lonely pandemic nights he would eventually get back on the ice.

He made sure to be ready.

"There was going to be a next game at some point," Johnston said. "I didn't know when. It was making sure I was going to be as good as I possibly could when that time came."

That work paid off.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2024.

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