Red Deer Rebels captain Reese Johnson won’t wow the average hockey fan with his offensive skills, although he’s enjoying a career WHL season with 22 goals and 45 points.
It’s the other parts of his game that are much appreciated by the Rebels coaching staff, and now the Chicago Blackhawks as well.
The Blackhawks signed the 20-year-old Saskatoon native to a three-year NHL entry-level contract this week, a deal worth $925,000.
“It’s a dream come true to get my first contract but now the real work starts,” Johnson said Thursday. “It’s just the beginning of my career, I guess, and I just have to keep moving forward.”
Johnson is the second Rebel to join the Blackhawks organization this season after Brandon Hagel inked a similar pact with Chicago in late October.
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said the two signings are correlated.
“The great thing about how it all worked out is they (Chicago scouts) were here watching Hages a lot,” said Sutter. “And Reese caught their eye too.
“They had different people watch him and made the decision to sign him.”
The Blackhawks’ talent evaluators decided that Johnson will be a good fit for the organization due partly to the intangibles he brings on a regular basis.
“They said they want lots of character and work ethic in the room, stuff like that,” said Johnson. “They like how I handle the little things and the competitiveness and the tenacity in my game.
“Just the little things are what does it for me. Scoring is secondary for me. The little things are what they said they like in my game and I just want to be the best in that regard.”
The fact that Johnson is a wizard in the dot didn’t hurt his pro contract aspirations. His 65 per cent success rate in the faceoff circle is No. 1 in the WHL.
“It’s a key thing to be able to start with pucks off those faceoffs,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that and I want to keep getting better.”
That Johnson is now a signed pro player is more than somewhat impressive considering how far he’s come in the last two years after missing the vast majority of his first two WHL seasons — including the entire 2015-16 campaign — due to a pair of shoulder surgeries.
“It’s just proof, it just shows you that you never give up, you never quit,” said Sutter.
“He persevered through a lot going through his 17- and 18-year old seasons. He came back to camp in his 19-year-old season with the right mindset. He really worked on his game that summer (of 2017) and came back and was an inspiration to everybody. It wasn’t a hard decision for us at the end of last year to name him captain for this season.
“He knows this is just the start of his work, but he has his foot in the door now. I’m proud of him and thrilled that the Blackhawks did what they did.”
Just the prospect of playing with Hagel in the NHL one day brings a smile to Johnson’s face.
“It’s obviously nice that he has signed with Chicago too. Me and Hages are good buddies,” said Johnson. “He’s an awesome player, he’s fun to play with and he creates a lot.”
The six-foot-one, 192-pound centre admitted that the reality of his signing is still sinking in, but he stressed that the remainder of the Rebels season is his focal point, including crucial home games versus Brandon and Kootenay Friday and Saturday.
“I just want to keep focused on this weekend coming up. It’s a pretty big weekend for us,” he said.
“I just want to focus on our season. That’s what matters to me now . . . getting into the playoffs and going on a long run, doing what I can for the Rebels.”
Sutter is confident Johnson will be a key player for the Rebels over the final week of regular-season play and hopefully beyond due to his character and physical attributes.
“Full marks to the Blackhawks for seeing things in Reese,” said the Rebels boss. “They talked to me about different things with him, things that are hard to find in a player today, including just the way he plays.
“He’s also a right hand shot centre and he’s No. 1 in the league in faceoffs. He’s good in the defensive zone and he’s a really good skater. Those are things NHL organizations look for and the Blackhawks decided he’s a good fit.”
Rebels vs. Brandon Wheat Kings
Friday, 7 p.m., Centrium
Brandon enters the contest with a 30-25-4-4 record and is tied with the Rebels for the second wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Wheat Kings, coming off a 4-1 loss Wednesday at Lethbridge, are 6-3-1-0 in their last 10 games and have won two of three games versus Red Deer this season . . . C Stelio Mattheos is tied with Red Deer’s Brandon Hagel for fifth in league scoring with 92 points, including 41 goals. C Luka Burzan has sniped 38 goals and has 73 points, while C Connor Guttenberg (15-28-43), D Zach Wytinck (5-38-43) and LW Cole Reinhardt (21-21-42) round out the Wheat Kings’ top five points producers. LW Ben McCartney, meanwhile, needs one goal to reach 20 for the season . . . Brandon’s No. 1 netminder Jiri Patera sports a 3.21 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Back-up Ethan Kruger is 3.59 and .889 . . . Mattheos was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round of the 2017 NHL entry draft. Patera was drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in the sixth round last year and D Braydyn Chizen was taken by the Minnesota Wild in the seventh round in 2016.
Injuries: Brandon — RW Lynden McCallum (upper body, week-to-week). Red Deer — None.
Special teams: Brandon — Power play 21 per cent, 13th overall; penalty kill 71.2 per cent, 20th. Red Deer — Power play 17.4 per cent, 18th overall; penalty kill 77.4 per cent, 13th.