Leading Prospects and Rookies for 1998

By pbadmin

For my first article in this series…

Mike Johnson, Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Johnson was never mentioned in any of the “Calder watch”
sections of hockey magazines, and even if some people knew about his
NHL worthy attributes (we’ll get to that in a second), nobody in
their right minds would have expected the Leafs to generate enough
offense to produce a Calder Trophy winner. Prospal, Svejkovsky,
Ohlund, Morozov, Thornton, Samsonov, Rasmussen — those
were the names we heard going into the 97-98 season. Well, as 1998 is
upon us, and Mike Johnson leads all rookie scorers with 24 points in
34 games.

“Wait a minute, Shawn,” I hear some of you saying. “Isn’t Johnson
playing on the top line with Sundin and Korolev? If you put me with
Sundin, I’d score 30 points too!” Well, buddy, I don’t think you
could score with a hooker, but I digress… The reason why Johnson is
on the top line is that he deserves to be there. Coach Murphy has
said he helps give Sundin a little more room to operate out there
with his size (he’s 6’3, 172) and speed. He’s also got good hockey
sense and uses it to play smart, mistake-free hockey out there. You
rarely finding yourself saying, “oh well, rookie mistake” because
Johnson’s play led to a goal against — he sure doesn’t look like a
rookie out there. Johnson also shows an increasing ability to
generate offense. The other day against Phoenix, I saw him in on a
good 5-6 offensive chances in a variety of situations, most notably
on the penalty kill. Yep, this “kid” (he’s 23 years old) is a part of
Toronto’s #1 ranked penalty-killing unit.

“Aren’t there any faults with this guy?” you say. Well, until that
game against Phoenix, Johnson couldn’t buy a point on the road, but
it looks like he’s nipped that in the bud — for now, at
least. Another “disappointment” is that Johnson is not a star; there
isn’t anything really exciting about him. He’s doesn’t have
one thing that stands out, like Bure’s speed for example, or
MacInnis’ shot. Nor does he have a set of skills like Kariya,
Forsberg, or Lindros that would make him a well-rounded superstar.
He’s just equally good in all areas and when he plays, he is not
flashy. He gets the job done. He could use a little more fire and
intensity, though.

With all of Johnson’s poise, we should remind ourselves that he is
only a rookie and is still discovering what kind of player he can be
in the NHL. For example, CBC’s Harry Neale was commenting on how
Johnson was learning that he can cut to the net and protect the puck
by sticking his leading leg out. When he develops his game, he can
be a bona-fide, smart, all-around winger like Ted Donato of the
Bruins.

Late last season, the Leafs outbidded several other teams to pluck
Johnson off Bowling Green University’s campus. At the time, some
people were angry that the Leafs were wasting $1.5M signing a
collegiate hockey player when they could have used the money to
pursue a free-agent during the summer, like Keane, Skrudland,
Messier, etc. Another collegiate signee was Randy Robitaille, who
signed with the Bruins, but has so far proved injury-prone in the
NHL. Half-way into the season, with the Leafs having a legitimate
Calder Trophy candidate for the first time since Wendel Clark in
1985, some people are giving ol’ Cliffy Fletcher two-thumbs up on
this one.

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