Goals get the glory. When Wyatt Johnston found the back of the net early in the first period Saturday night for his first goal of the season, helping the Dallas Stars beat the Philadelphia Flyers, the shot is what was shown repeatedly on the big screen. The replay went back a little bit longer, showing Johnston pickpocketing the puck at center ice before sniping, but it was those six seconds that got most of the shine.
At just 20 years old, Johnston has quickly become one of the most consistent players on the Stars. His precision and tenacity are easy to spot when he’s on the ice, and that ice time is shooting up the ranks. Last year, as a 19-year-old rookie out of junior hockey in which Johnston finished as a Calder Trophy finalist and tied for the rookie lead in goals scored, Johnston averaged 15:29 in time on ice per game, good for eighth among Stars forwards on the season. This season, it’s only been four games and the Stars have played beyond regulation in three of them, but Johnston is averaging 18:11 ice time per game, which is second among Stars forwards and just 22 seconds behind Matt Duchene for the team lead. At even strength, Johnston is third amongst Stars forwards and just 25 seconds short of being second.
Despite missing most of training camp with an ailment, Johnston has assumed a bigger role right out the gate. He’s second among Stars forwards in penalty kill minutes and is an important part of the overtime rotation as well.
Johnston’s meteoric rise in the NHL since taking the season-opening faceoff last year is because of a combination of things. Johnston is a confident but responsible player, flexing great skill to accompany his advanced hockey IQ. One scoring sequence doesn’t always do it justice. After practice on Monday, Johnston sat down with The Athletic and went through his full 32-second shift from Saturday that led to his goal.
Johnston’s goal came just four minutes into the first period against the Flyers, so it was still early in the game. While Johnston is playing a little over 18 minutes per game on the ice, the Stars forward is constantly engaged in the game beyond that. When he’s on the bench, Johnston is on high alert. He’s observing how the other team is playing, gauging game flow and looking for where the puck is so that he can position himself off of that as soon as he hits the ice. When his shift is approaching, Johnston is also looking at the Stars centerman on the ice to see when he starts to skate towards the bench as Johnston’s cue to hop over the boards.
Johnston’s first shift came 32 seconds into the game, after Roope Hintz got off the ice. Johnston’s second shift began a few minutes minutes later at the 16:30 mark. Here’s a look at the full shift before we split it up.
Johnston was quickly thrust into the action on his second shift. When he took the ice, the puck was deep in the Flyers’ own zone, Flyers defenseman Egor Zamula measuring the ice right in front of his net with the puck on his stick. Zamula uncorked a stretch pass attempt that didn’t connect and the puck settled right on the Stars’ blue line, where Johnston had just gotten on the ice.
Johnston gathered the puck and turned around, looking for his options. He had Thomas Harley and Esa Lindell behind him and Jason Robertson was just skating off the ice for a shift change to bring on Jamie Benn. Johnston had a quick moment of open ice in front of him but Flyers centerman Scott Laughton was screaming down hard towards Johnston. The Stars’ centerman spotted his winger, Evgenii Dadonov, along the left wall going up the ice.
“There are really only two plays, either hit Daddy or skate it up myself,” Johnston said. “I saw Daddy moving a little bit and (he) had some speed so I tried to get him the puck, not make him stop up.”
Johnston’s pass to a streaking Dadonov got broken up by Travis Konecny, who got his body on the puck, sending the puck slightly back and off to the side. Johnston shifted gears on a dime from facilitator to puck battle mode. As he went to the boards, his man, Laughton, followed him there but in a matter of a split second, Johnston was able to get body positioning on Laughton and neutralize his stick to win the battle.
“One thing that helps is getting stronger,” Johnston said. “In a situation like that, you try your best to get body positioning. You can see him kind of coming towards the far side of the puck to try to get body position. The puck is kind of more (inside). I’m trying to get as far away from the puck as I can so that even if he ties up my stick, I still have body position and can get on it. I think body position is probably the biggest. If I go right there at the puck, then it’s kind of 50-50 and it’s whoever gets a stick on it. He’s stronger and he can make it (out) better but there I’m trying to take his stick (out) so he can’t really get the puck.”
As Johnston went in for the puck battle along the boards, his mind and his eyes were up the ice looking for the next play. Johnston didn’t just win the puck battle against Laughton but he simultaneously made the pass up the ice again, looking for a continuation of the play he tried to make when Konecny broke up his pass. However, in those two seconds of disruption, as you can see in the last two seconds of the clip directly above, Dadonov had already peeled back down the ice towards the middle to ensure the Stars wouldn’t be short on numbers if the puck went the other way.
Hockey is a fast game and this sequence illustrates why it’s critical it is to pair hockey IQ with tangible talents. At 16:25 Johnston is about to make the pass up the ice and Dadonov is flying up the wall. By 16:22, in just three seconds, that pass was broken up, Johnston won a puck battle and made another pass up the ice while Dadonov came back down and to the middle.
Though the play didn’t work out as Johnston had hoped for, there was no time to lament over it. Johnston stayed on the hip of Laughton, who flipped the puck back to his defenseman, Emil Andrae. As soon as Andrae securely has the puck and the game starts flowing in the other direction, you can see Johnston in the clip below starting out in Laughton’s hip pocket but turning his head ever so slightly. When Johnston did that, he saw Konecny on the far side of the ice from Andrae. Johnston, understanding that Laughton is not an immediate threat in this moment, peels off of his man just a bit and fades out and up the ice.
“Right here, I’m just trying to deny this pass,” Johnston said. “Get in the lane, make sure that they’re forcing it up the boards, which is the best play for us, if they’re going to just dump it in.”
Once the puck is dumped in, Johnston skates towards the puck to help pressure but he has his head on a swivel, turning twice to make sure he still is accountable for his man, Laughton.
The puck rims back to Laughton on the edge and he puts a relatively harmless shot on Scott Wedgewood that was easily handled. Lindell knocked the puck out of the net-front area and back to where it came from so Johnston again was Johnny-on-the-spot in front of Laughton. This time, Laughton’s shot was from a little closer, in the left circle, but Johnston managed to get in position to do enough to block the shot.
The puck went to the other side of Johnston but he saw Benn get possession of the puck, which was his cue to shift gears again.
“You see possession and there’s some good support there so you’re trying to push the defense back,” Johnston said.
With the sequence that had just happened in the Stars’ zone, Benn was simply trying to get the puck out of the zone and allow things to cool down for a moment and reset. Johnston said he knew immediately that Benn was going to flip the puck out of the zone.
“The way we play, we don’t want to bring that back (behind the net), we want to move it forward,” Johnston said. “I’m more just trying to get up the ice, push the defense back and open up some space.”
Once Benn flips the puck to the neutral zone, Johnston is playing with house money.
“Once I see the flip, then it’s kind of following it and skating at it,” Johnston said. “Defensemen are looking up at the puck and it’s hard to read where it’s going to land and people are skating at you. Like, I don’t like it when I’m in that position where somebody flips the puck at me and people are skating 100 miles per hour at me. I don’t know if the puck’s going to land flat or if it’s going to bounce one way. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The puck lands in front of Flyers defenseman Nick Seeler, who tries to settle down the bouncing puck on the ice. Meanwhile, Johnston isn’t just aimlessly skating up the ice. He uses his man, Laughton, as a shield so Seeler doesn’t even see Johnston coming until he pops around at the last second.
“The bouncing puck is so hard to control as a defenseman,” Johnston said. “It worked out, his guy got a good screen on me so the (Seeler) didn’t really see me. He’s trying to control it, it takes a little bounce and he can’t control it great. I just tried to poke it free and obviously, you see that open ice, you take it.”
Johnston had control of the puck right away after pickpocketing Seeler but he had two Flyers on the inside. Andrae was more up the ice but he also saw Dadonov coming on the opposite side of the ice of Johnston so he had to respect that and play the middle to prevent a pass. Laughton was caught out of position because Johnston stealing the puck the way he did was completely unexpected.
“Situations like this, I’m just reading the goalie,” Johnston said. “You can see it perfectly right here, there’s nothing far side and you can see, there’s some space there. Just want to get a good shot on it. Pick a spot and try to hit it, pretty much.”
“I thought right from the drop of the puck (on Saturday), he was our best player,” Stars head coach Pete DeBoer said. “I thought he had that swagger back, that confidence back.”
Johnston has become one of the most interesting players to watch on the Stars, with or without the puck, and this shift is a good example of why. In 32 seconds, Johnston made a pass, won a puck battle along the boards, came out of it with another pass, prevented a cross-ice play, blocked a shot, stole the puck and scored a goal. This shift in particular stood out because of the strong punctuation at the end but this sort of play is commonplace with Johnston and why he’s become such a huge part of the Stars so quickly. Every shift doesn’t end with a goal but the details — physically and mentally — are always at work.
(Top photo: Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)