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Wyatt Johnston: A Good Problem to Have (Around The Stars Universe Vol. 2)

When the Dallas Stars didn’t want Wyatt Johnston to attend the World Juniors tournament in August, it wasn’t because they didn’t think it could be a helpful boost for the youngster. It was to give him any time and space necessary to prepare for training camp in September as both people within the organization and player felt there was a palpable chance of making an opening night roster for him.

When that officially happened, it wasn’t because of some preferential treatment over the likes of Logan Stankoven or Mavrik Bourque, who are always mentioned together with Johnston as the next wave of Stars offensive talent. It was based purely on merit. He was voted as a most impressive player throughout the camp by the players themselves, something which new head coach Pete DeBoer confirmed when talking to the media ahead of the season.

“The biggest thing was, I thought his game grew as he got more comfortable,” DeBoer said. “Sometimes you see from young players, they pop early in camp and as the pace picks up and things get tougher, their games slide a little bit. I thought it was the opposite with him. I thought every day out there, he got more comfortable (and) every time he got more comfortable, he looked better. The tougher the games got as the preseason went on, the better he was.”

The reigning Red Tilson trophy winner, which is awarded to the OHL’s most outstanding player of the year, started the season on the Stars’ third line, centering Jamie Benn and Denis Gurianov. As you surely know, he scored his first NHL goal already in his first game against Nashville and it was a beauty.

Throughout his next four games, he continued to play the typical third line minutes (around the 14 minutes mark), excluding the penalty riddled game in Toronto where he didn’t have a proper ability to make an impact as he isn’t part of the team’s power play or penalty kill — yet. Nevertheless, even in that limited space he managed to make an impact, as mentioned in Cam Charron‘s game review. The former Toronto Maple Leafs analyst tagged Johnston as “definitely a player” and I take his opinion higher than most as he has the experience from the inside that he is willing to share with mass audiences now.

During Johnston‘s last game against the Montreal Canadiens, DeBoer switched his linemates a bit, promoting Denis Gurianov to play with Tyler Seguin and Mason Marchment while Ty Dellandrea played with Jamie Benn and Johnston. The overall metrics of that third line were mixed. As Saad Yousuf mentioned in his post-game review, they were a team-best in xGF (Natural Stat Trick = 0.84, MoneyPuck = .912) but pretty comfortably team-worst in xGA (Natural Stat Trick = 0.73, MoneyPuck = .705).

They were also on the ice for both goals Montreal scored and the first one was directly after Johnston mishandled a puck in the offensive zone, so there’s that.

Since Wyatt Johnston is still a 19-year-old player, according to the NHL – CHL agreement of teenager’s transfers within those two leagues, he cannot be sent to the AHL. Instead, he has to be returned to his Canadian junior team if he is not on the NHL roster. The Stars can use a 9-game tryout in the NHL this season to decide whether to keep him around in the big league or send him to back to juniors without burning the first year of his entry-level contract.

The team has to balance whether they are fine with some growing pains along the way at the NHL level and which environment is best for him to continue his development.

Only those games in which Johnston actually plays are counted towards the 9-game threshold. His stay can be artificially prolonged if he’s scratched for some games as they don’t count for ELC first-year burn conditions. For a complete picture, a player accrues his first NHL season for unrestricted free agency purposes if he’s a part of the team for at least 40 games, whether he’s playing or not.

So the big question looms around Wyatt Johnston. What is the best way forward for him development-wise? And what is the best for the Dallas Stars? It can be argued that Johnston has really nothing more to prove at the OHL level anymore. As a most productive player in the whole CHL last season, Johnston could develop more efficiently under NHL coaches’ oversight. But nevertheless, I wanted to ask Stars fans about their preference on Twitter.

Albeit a very small sample size, it seems the majority is in favor of Johnston staying in the NHL with Dallas while roughly a third would send him back to the OHL for one more year. That’s not a big surprise itself. I have also included a third, inconspicuous option of keeping Johnston on the team while keeping the options open.

What do I mean by that?

For the record, I am also of the opinion that Johnston should stay with the NHL team. His play could potentially improve as the year goes on, depending on the quality of teammates he is surrounded with. So far, the team seems to be on a roll and Johnston rolls with it. The worst-case scenario is that he potentially hits a wall and his play deteriorates after some 20 or 30 games into the season. What then?

Well, remember that there is also a World Juniors tournament planned in late December starting around the same time as game 35 of the Dallas Stars’ 2022-23 campaign. Playing devil’s advocate here, but if Johnston stays with the team in the first place, would it be the worst thing to potentially send him to play in the international tournament for those two or three weeks to boost his self-confidence while leading a lethal Canadian attack, if he is indeed struggling, even just a bit?

This could be a viable option for the team to keep him around almost for the whole season while also having him let go against his peers, especially when there are also more than capable replacements brewing in Cedar Park, like Matej Blumel, Riley Damiani or even Mavrik Bourque. This way Jim Nill could have his pie but eat it too, as the saying goes.

And as I outlined in the salary cap primer, Jim Nill loves layering the contracts so that their values are easier to manage well into the future. There is a significant probability that if Johnston burns the first year of his ELC and his next deal come in three years (summer of 2025), it will be slightly cheaper than if he is sent down to to the OHL, sliding his ELC to expire in 2026 instead. Make no mistake, Wyatt Johnston is a Star in the making (pun intended) but having a hard salary cap is a game of thin margins, too.

Yes, the cap is projected to rise year-by-year and possibly even more than originally projected a few weeks ago. I just think having Jake Oettinger, Wyatt Johnston and Mavrik Bourque neatly lined up for their extensions in the year where there is a significant cap relief from the expiry of Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell or Radek Faksa’s hefty contracts (2025) is prudent cap management. Then, you can deal with the big tickets of Jason Robertson and possibly a Logan Stankoven a year later in 2026.

The contractual argument for sending Wyatt Johnston to the juniors after the ninth game of the season is that then you could have one more year of cost-controlled asset and also his UFA year would be one year later. So, as you can see there is a lot of moving parts involved in the decision that go well beyond what happens on the ice.

Let me know what your preference about Wyatt Johnston is in the comments section below.  Should he stay with the team for the whole season? Should he be sent down back to juniors? Or should he stay with the team but keep the door open for a potential WJC appearance? It could all be answered by Wyatt Johnston alone in his subsequent on-ice performances. Let‘s see where Jim Nill‘s at after Johnston plays his first nine games of the season and how the youngster will force the hand of the GM, in a positive or a negative way, if he hasn‘t already done so.

To me, this is a very fascinating debate and there is probably a good case for every possible scenario, depending on the point of view of each and every one of us. Just a good problem to have around the Stars universe.