To say there is mutual admiration between Ducks rookie center Mason McTavish and Columbus Blue Jackets rookie forward Kent Johnson, well, really is something of an understatement.
McTavish on Johnson’s NHL ceiling: “It’s high. Just the way he carries the puck, it looks so effortless and smooth. I see some (Patrick) Kane in him. I hope he has that good a career. So would he, I’m sure.”
Johnson on McTavish’s rapid ascent to first-line center: “No it doesn’t surprise me. He’s a really good player. Coming from juniors is a pretty big jump to the NHL. I knew it wouldn’t take him too long.”
McTavish and Johnson were teammates as recently as August when they led Canada to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton. And they were the two youngest forwards on the Team Canada squad that lost to Sweden in the 2022 Olympic quarterfinals in Beijing.
Now comes a special first meeting in the NHL between the friends with the last-place Blue Jackets hosting the Ducks, who are 30th overall, on Thursday night at Nationwide Arena.
“A couple of weeks ago, I saw it on the schedule and I thought, ‘Oh that will be fun to have him come into town and play him,’” Johnson said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I’m excited. Obviously, I love playing with him, but it’ll be cool to play against him and hopefully get the better of him.”
Wednesday was an off day for both teams and Johnson said he would be seeing McTavish later in the day. McTavish was second in the league’s rookie scoring race with 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists), nine points behind the leader Matty Beniers of Seattle, heading into Wednesday’s slate of games. Johnson is tied for sixth with 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists).
McTavish said recently that he was keeping track of Johnson’s results when he was asked about other top NHL rookies. It is a bit more difficult for Johnson to watch Ducks home games because of the time zone difference.
“I try not to stay up too late to watch,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I’ll watch the first period. And when they’re on the East Coast, I’ll watch one of their games. But I’m always looking at his stats after every game, checking to see if he’s got a point or whatnot. Good to see his highlights. He’s had some good one-timers on the power play. It’s good to see he’s doing all the things he can do at this level.”
Before the Ducks left on their six-game trip, McTavish broke down Johnson’s impressive shootout goal against Carolina on Jan. 7
Kent Johnson is too smooth in the shootout pic.twitter.com/Cjf599Egcw
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 8, 2023
“I’ve seen him do that quite a bit of times,” McTavish said. “That’s his move.”
Would he try to copy it?
“Ah, no. That’s too much edge work for me,” he said. “I normally just go low blocker or five hole – keep it simple. That’s pretty sweet.”
Indeed, the ceiling is high for the prodigies. McTavish and Johnson were drafted third and fifth, respectively, in 2021. Johnson turned 20 on Oct. 18 and McTavish will leave his teen years behind on Jan. 30. Thursday’s meeting will certainly be the first of many between them.
“We’re pretty competitive,” Johnson said. “We’ll be giving it to each other – whether it’s shooting pucks or playing ping pong. I’m sure there’ll be some chirping going on or whatnot.”
They’ve only golfed with each other once, Johnson said, adding: “He thinks he’s probably a lot better than me with his handicap. But he didn’t play great that day. So I got the better of him.”
Together, they’ll always have Edmonton, linked in Canadian hockey lore.
There was McTavish’s goal-line stop in overtime in the gold-medal game against Finland in the WJC, saving the day and setting the stage for Johnson’s golden goal.
“It was crazy. I didn’t even see it in real time,” Johnson said of McTavish’s defensive play. “I think I was sitting down on the bench catching my breath for my next shift. So I didn’t see what he did. Just seeing the video after, just thinking, ‘geez, my goal wouldn’t have even happened if he didn’t make that play.’ It could have been a different game. It’s going to be one of those things that I’ll remember my whole life. A pretty special moment.”
The Ducks have lost five straight games, going 0-4-1, which included Tuesday’s 5-2 loss at Philadelphia.
“Game came down to four plays that have nothing to do with work ethic, systems, experience, skill or heart,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said via text message. “Our guys work, are prepared and they care.
“Tonight came down to our brains and decision-making in four moments: Jumping on the ice too quick on a change cost us a penalty. Our decision to not ice the puck when we had all the time in the world on the PK leads to (a) goal.
“Forced shot selection on the PP leads to shorthanded goal. And a breakout where we had lots of time and complicated it leads a third goal. Philly didn’t have to work for those goals…they were given to them.
“We are not in a position as an organization to outscore our mistakes yet.”