Saturday, April 20, 2024 Apr 20, 2024
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The Sophomore Slump Isn’t Coming For Wyatt Johnston 

The 20-year-old had one of the best rookie years in Dallas Stars history. Spoiler alert: it’s only going to get better.
He's really, really good, everyone. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports.

When all was said and done, it took just one season for Wyatt Johnston to pack enough accolades and stories to fill an entire career. At the end of 2022, he won the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy for having amassed the most OHL points and the William Hanley Award, which goes to the most sportsmanlike player. In his first NHL season, Johnston finished one goal shy of being the sole owner of the Stars’ record for most goals by a rookie. (He finished with 24, matching the mark set by James Neal in 2009.) A Toronto native, Johnston celebrated becoming the first North American teenager to play for the Stars since Jamie Langenbrunner by duking it out with Matty Beniers for the NHL Rookie of the Year award. Though he didn’t win, a more important race took center stage: the Stanley Cup.  

He fell shy of both … as a teenager who didn’t turn 20 until the middle of the playoffs.

It’s a lot, and yet it’s all just the beginning for Johnston. At this point, it almost feels like an insult to call him young. He doesn’t process the game like a young player, and he didn’t look like a nervous understudy in the Thunderdome when the Stars faced off against the Wild, the Kraken, and the Golden Knights in the playoffs. Because of that, it sounds silly to entertain the notion of a sophomore slump. 

Having rewatched a lot of tape on Johnston, there’s an uncontainable maturity to the way he processes the game. While he made his mark in Year 1 as a goal scorer, he has yet to display his dynamic qualities in other areas like his growing abilities as a deceptive playmaker and an intelligent forechecker. I suspect Jim Nill and the Stars’ staff felt the same optimism, which is why they re-signed Evgenii Dadonov. This isn’t a team merely looking to build on Johnston’s maturity. This is a team looking to build on his momentum, too.  

For his part, Johnston will mature as young, talented players naturally do. But rarely do young players get the benefit of playing on a line where the chemistry is so strong, as it is with Dadonov and Jamie Benn. It’s the rare example of development (which NHL teams love to say they don’t have time for) in real time. Johnston gets to continue learning new skills and acquire more experience, and he gets to do it with the assistance of quality teammates. If last season was an experiment, this year will be a test. For the first 59 games last year, Johnston and Benn were the designated duo, but finding that missing piece wasn’t easy. Denis Gurianov seemed like a natural fit but, well, you know how that story ended. Then came Ty Dellandrea, who was a good fit. Unfortunately, Dellandrea didn’t maximize his teammates’ strengths. He was too rugged and raw to elevate Benn and Johnston’s ceiling. Enter Dadonov.

The Russian’s element of playmaking brought that line to life (at least offensively), and the impact on Johnston was stark. There’s an easy formula to evaluate this. What did Johnston’s rate of production look like before playing alongside Dadonov, and what did his rate of production look like after Dadonov’s addition? See for yourself. 

Goals, primary assists, points, shot quality—Dadonov made life easier for Johnston, and it showed in his production. Before Dadonov, Johnston scored 20 points in 59 games, good for a 27-point pace. After Dadonov, Johnston scored 14 points in 23 games, good for a 50-point pace.

That’s nice and all, but it’s also super boring. It’s not interesting enough. My opinion is that Johnston isn’t just destined for a better season; he’s also destined for a great career. I want to know where Johnston fits into the historical record; not simply where he fits into the Stars’ top 10 next year. As it turns out, we have some strong clues.  

What we’re trying to do here is figure out how much more productive we can expect Johnston to be based on the performance of players with similar profiles. Evolving-Hockey has a stat called “Off” that refers to the goals scored above a typical healthy scratch forward (called EVO) plus that player’s power-play goals above a typical healthy scratch forward (called PPO). In other words, it refers to the offense we can reasonably expect from a player given the offense he generates from shift to shift at even strength, and on the power play. My theory is that Johnston was not like most 19-year-olds. As such, we should expect 19-year-olds with similarly dangerous offensive scores to be few and far between.         

(Point totals have been adjusted to reflect an 82-game season.)

That’s some stupid good company. You can’t even play a “one of these does not belong” games with this list. The standard jump in points was eight, with the aforementioned players averaging 54 points in their sophomore seasons. The differential is skewed somewhat thanks to Clayton Keller’s 20-year-old season, which was brutalized by a career-low shooting percentage. (He’d become one of the game’s elite young players anyway.)  

Basically, Dallas can expect something in the range of a 50- to 60-point season for Johnston. 

Even if Johnston doesn’t reach those point totals in his sophomore season, half the players on the list have tallied 80-point seasons. The optimist can point out what can help Johnston get there. It starts with the linemates he’ll be playing with: Dadonov and Benn. In the regular season, the trio outscored opponents 17-11. They maintained their 54 percent expected goal share in 19 playoff games, suggesting the production is sustainable. 

But there’s also an asterisk and it’s kind of a big one. It’s so big that Robert wrote an entire article about it. The Stars have walked an unorthodox tightrope of pairing young players with advanced players. It worked for Roope Hintz, but not Miro Heiskanen. Nor is it the norm for some of the best tandems in the game, including Nikita Kucherov with Braydon Point, Nathan MacKinnon with Mikko Rantanen, and Jack Eichel with Ivan Barbashev.  

You have to wonder how much it’ll keep working for Johnston. Benn had a great year, but let’s call it what it was: it was also a lucky one. How lucky? He turned in his second-highest shooting percentage of his career at even strength and on the power play. For argument’s sake, let’s say Benn’s shooting percentage drops to his career even-strength average (10.77) and man-advantage average (16.8). That would be eight fewer goals on the year, and who knows how many fewer points given how much his passing and offensive vision have declined in recent years.     

Robert’s point may look gloomy to some, but I don’t see it that way. Dallas has created a situation among its players where one pulls forward as the young talented players do, and others pull in the opposite direction as declining, once-talented players do. For most teams, this kind of criticism is ultimately irrelevant–pedantic, even. But the Stars aren’t most teams. And isn’t this what great teams do anyway? No inefficiencies, however minor or granular, will ever go unaddressed. Heiskanen on his weak side might seem like a minor complaint from analysts like me. But it wasn’t minor to Vegas, who targeted him with almost every zone entry to wear him down. Like Heiskanen, Johnston is no longer some flashy youngster who has yet to prove himself. He’s one of the team’s central weapons, and thus one of his opponent’s central targets. 

I mention these things because while Johnston looks like a star in the making, he is also human. Dallas might have inadvertently created a situation that could stunt some of his development. This is not a diss on Benn or Dadonov. It’s just the reality of the situation: both are 34, and both are far more likely to turn into the current version of Patrick Kane than the current version of Joe Pavelski.  

And that’s ultimately my point. If Johnston doesn’t take a big leap forward, be sure to check the temperature of his teammates. Because Johnston’s surroundings may be the only thing that can put a damper on a very rapid ascent to stardom. And if they don’t, we’ll have an even better sense of his future. Now imagine the possibilities when somebody helps carry him instead of the other way around.   


David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…

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