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The quiet brilliance of Wyatt Johnston

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Wyatt Johnston shoulder checks to his right, then his left, before collecting the puck deep in the Seattle Kraken's zone. With icing waved off and opponents now barrelling down on him, the Dallas Stars rookie forward quickly but casually roofs it - backhand, short side, awkward angle - past the goalie.

At the other end of the rink, Jake Oettinger stands slack-jawed in Dallas' crease. He's trying to process what just happened; it's Game 7 in the second round of the NHL playoffs, for crying out loud. Johnston not only rose to the occasion in a high-pressure moment but scored on a tricky maneuver that requires confidence, creativity, and hockey intelligence.

"Most kids his age would maybe fold or crumble in a situation like that. But Johnny embraced it, and he leaned into his ridiculous skill set," Oettinger said in a recent phone interview. "He wanted to be a difference-maker."

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That goal, scored with 7:12 left in regulation, turned out to be historic. At 20 years old and one day, Johnston became the youngest player in NHL history to net a series-clinching goal in a Game 7. Impressively, it wasn't an isolated flash of brilliance. Johnston's first pro season, which covered 101 total games, was defined by his ability to one-up himself every few weeks.

"There was never that moment where you were like, 'Oh, this kid's hit the rookie wall,'" Stars winger Joe Pavelski said. "No, it was like, 'What else can we give him now? What else can he learn? What else can he develop?'"

Johnston's mature game is accompanied by a wholesome personality and aw-shucks looks. Childhood friends describe him as the "nicest kid on the planet," and last year, he was the little brother figure on the Stars.

"A lot of the guys have been playing in the league for a decade," Johnston told theScore. "I still have a lot to learn from them. I'm still only 20 years old."

                     

Johnston, the 23rd overall pick in the 2021 draft, grew up in Toronto. He was an elite forward at an early age and spent half his minor hockey career skating with and against kids a year older than him. One of his coaches back then was legendary defenseman Paul Coffey, who'd tell any NHL scout and general manager who'd listen that Johnston doesn't rely solely on his offensive skills.

"It didn't matter what point of the game it was - if I needed to win a faceoff, to kill a penalty, to score a goal, Wyatt was always the first guy I tapped to go out there," Coffey recalled of a teenager with "off the charts" hockey sense.

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Marc Savard, the former head coach of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires, joked about how Johnston made his job easy. "When Wyatt was on the ice, I could go to the dressing room if I needed to because I knew nothing bad was going to happen in our end," Savard said. "That's pretty high praise because I know he can score, make plays. But he's damn good in his own zone, too."

That hard-wired versatility endeared Johnston to Pete DeBoer, too. Dallas' head coach talked glowingly about him throughout 2022-23, concluding in May that he'd never seen a rookie transition like Johnston in his 15 years running an NHL bench. Johnston made the team out of training camp, contributed immediately, and got better with additional responsibilities.

"This guy is unflappable," DeBoer told reporters ahead of the postseason.

Johnston appeared in every regular-season game, averaging 15:29 a night. He centered - and elevated - captain Jamie Benn and either Evgenii Dadonov or Ty Dellandrea and earned roles on both special teams. He tied Calder Trophy winner Matty Beniers for most goals by a rookie (24) and led all first-year players with 21 even-strength tallies. (For context, annual 50-goal threats Alex Ovechkin and Leon Draisaitl scored 22 and 20 at even strength, respectively.)

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"I've heard people say it, and it's been true: You don't really understand how good the NHL game is until you're out there and in the middle of everything," Johnston said, reflecting on his All-Rookie team showing. "You get to see how good the guys you're playing against are, and it's pretty eye-opening."

Nothing about the above quote is untrue. Yet, Oettinger would be quick to note how the messaging is typical of Johnston: even-keeled, modest, and deferential.

"We always give him shit," the goalie said with a laugh. "The guys will chirp him. We'll tell him he's cocky. But it's totally a joke because he's actually the exact opposite. Most people, if they were doing what he's doing, they'd be walking around like they're God's gift to earth. But he's the exact opposite: a nice kid that, personality-wise, is, honestly, very normal. He's down to earth."

"I don't think you could ever get in an argument with him," added Jack Beck, Johnston's longtime pal and a forward for the OHL's Soo Greyhounds. "We'll get into little back-and-forths, especially about hockey, but he's always just so nice about it. I've never gotten in a fight with him. Ever. It'll never get heated."

Johnston is less polite on the ice. He refuses to live on the perimeter like some of his offensively gifted peers, instead reminding coaches and scouts of Pavel Datsyuk. Similar to the future Hall of Fame center, Johnston cares deeply about the defensive side of the game, doesn't shy away from puck battles, and uses his smarts and quick stick to regularly strip it from opponents. With possession, he excels at distributing and shooting in tight quarters.

Mark LoMoglio / Getty Images

"Even if you're not directly focusing on it," Johnston said about the art of stripping pucks, "when you're playing a scrimmage, three-on-three, or even a normal game, it's something you're able to work on here and there.

"That's one thing that's always been a strength of mine. A lot of it is experience, timing, and realizing when the puck is exposed, so you can attack at that exact moment."

Being mentioned in the same sentence as Datsyuk is "pretty awesome and pretty generous" - and at least partially attributable to studying the former Red Wings great. "I watched his highlights a few weeks ago," he said.

This cerebral approach to impacting three zones will be Johnston's calling card throughout his career. Even though he's been dealing with a minor upper-body injury in the preseason, he says he feels prepared for his sophomore campaign, which starts Oct. 12. He added eight pounds of muscle in the summer, giving his shot extra zip and helping with puck protection.

Now 6-foot-2 and 184 pounds, Johnston considers himself fortunate to have Pavelski, a respected vet who's twice his age, as a mentor. He lived with Pavelski and his family as a rookie and decided to return to the spacious Dallas-area home for Year 2 after briefly exploring other options.

"You've got time to live on your own the rest of your life," Johnston said. "Situations like this, with Pavs and his family, don't come up too often."

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The situation is ideal. Johnston gets to be part of the Pavelski family while being away from his own and can regularly pick the brain of a first-line winger who's played 1,250 NHL games. Observing and asking about Pavelski's preparation and recovery methods alone is invaluable education.

The more Johnston embraces the off-ice aspects of being a pro, the better off he'll be. "What he's doing isn't a fluke," Johnston said of Pavelski's longevity.

Asked how Johnston can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, Pavelski shared this bit of wisdom: "If there's anything to focus on, it's that you can't be satisfied. You need to want more. You have the foundation, you're willing to put in the work, so what can you add to that base without subtracting?"

The Stars, who lost in the Western Conference Final last year, are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Led by 2017 draftees Oettinger, Miro Heiskanen, and Jason Robertson, the roster's a terrific mix of mid-career stars, veteran depth, and promising youngsters. And Johnston's in line for a bump in ice time.

"Even last year, the belief in the room was that we could win the Cup. And it's the same this year," Johnston said. "That's the expectation. That's the goal. Everyone's bought into that; everyone believes that."

Last October, Johnston was focused on starting his NHL career without any major hiccups, so the organization wouldn't have a choice but to keep him around all season. A year later, he's an essential piece of a win-now core and "just scratching the surface," according to his goalie.

"Johnny wants to be great. He wants to be a great NHLer," Oettinger said. "And I know, 100%, that he's going to be."

John Matisz is theScore's senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (john.matisz@thescore.com).

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