How impressive has Red Deer Rebels forward Reese Johnson been to start the 2017-18 Western Hockey League season?
Well, in eight games this fall, the 19-year-old forward has already sniped four goals — one fewer than he scored in 54 previous games with the club.
Johnson, of course, is a poster boy for hard luck, having missed half of the 2015-16 campaign due to a severe shoulder injury and ensuing surgery and all of last season — except for three playoff outings — following an operation on the other shoulder.
Now that he’s healthy, he’s taking on an important two-way role with the Rebels and is on pace for a 20-plus goal season.
“It’s obviously nice to be back and healthy, but I think for the most part I’m just trying to keep the game simple and do the little things right,” he said Friday while dissecting his early success.
“I just focus on doing things right in the ‘D’ zone and the offence comes from that.”
Johnson started the season on a line with Austin Pratt and Akash Bains, has also skated alongside Chris Douglas and is currently centering Pratt and Brandon Hagel.
“Obviously it’s nice playing with ‘Pratter’ and ‘Hags’. They’re both really good players, they work hard and they’re skilled,” said Johnson. “The last few games we’ve had some good cycles going, some good forechecks. We’ve had lots of pressure and hopefully we can keep that up.”
The Saskatoon product knew he had a lot of ground to make up after missing so much time and took it upon himself to train extra hard during the summer.
“Lots of off-ice (training), good fitness runs to get my cardio up. And I kept up with my physio on my shoulders to keep those strong,” he said.
The six-foot-one, 182-pound forward, the younger brother of former Red Deer forward and captain Wyatt Johnson, was listed by and then summoned to the Rebels late in the 2014-15 season after scoring 23 goals in 43 games with the midget AAA Saskatoon Blazers.
While it was unlikely that he would produce at that pace at the major junior level, Johnson at least knew he was capable of putting up decent offensive numbers.
“I definitely knew I could score at this level, but it’s been tough the last couple of years,” he said. “I haven’t really got an opportunity, but this year, like I said, I’m just trying to keep my game simple and be good in all the little areas. I think that’s what makes my game the best it can be and offence comes from that.”
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter is impressed with the manner in which Johnson has rebounded from two surgeries and sitting out a season and a half.
“It’s been a tough go for him the last couple of years, but he’s come in and played well,” said Sutter. “For being out so long he’s had a really good start to the year.”
A natural winger, Johnson — along with Jared Dmytriw — has been moved into the middle by the Rebels coaching staff. So far, so good.
“We’re in a position where we’re trying to play some wingers at centre,” said Sutter. “We’re trying to climatize them to a new position as we go along here and for the most part they’ve handled it well.”
Dmytriw possesses outstanding wheels and Johnson also has a swift stride, helping both of them adjust to their new slots.
“Reese’s straightaway speed is outstanding. He’s hard on the forecheck and he’s learning that position down the middle and has done a really good job of it,” said Sutter.
“If Reese plays a north-south game he’s very effective, and that’s like a lot of our guys . . . our whole group. When we get wanting to play that type of game where we’re trying to beat guys one-on-one, we’re not as good.
“These guys are all good skaters and Reese is right there with them.”
Rebels vs. Saskatoon Blades, Saturday, 7 p.m., Centrium
The Blades took a 2-4-0-0 record into Friday’s game at Edmonton and sat sixth in the East Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference. In their most recent contest, the Blades downed the host Regina Pats 6-4 Wednesday . . . Overage forwards Braylon Shmyr and Cameron Hebig have carried the Blades offensively. LW Shmyr had a team best six goals and 11 points prior to Friday, while C Hebig had produced four goals and five assists. C Brady Goethals was third in team scoring with five points (3g,2a) . . . Regular starter Ryan Kubic was 31st among WHL goaltenders prior to Friday with a 4.61 goals-against average. He sported an .840 save percentage.
Injuries: Saskatoon — C Tyler Lees (upper body, 1-2 weeks), C Logan Christensen (upper body, 6-8 weeks), C Kirby Dach (upper body, to be determined). Red Deer — D Alex Alexeyev (upper body, week-to-week), G Riley Lamb (upper body, indefinite), LW Dawson Martin (upper body, week-to-week).
Special teams: Saskatoon — Power play 9.5 per cent prior to Friday, 20th overall; penalty kill 68 per cent, 21st. Red Deer — Power play 27.5 per cent, eighth overall; penalty kill 77.1 per cent, 13th.