When Drew Johnston was working out this summer he had one thing on his mind.
“I wanted to be on the team this year,” the 17-year-old Saint John, N.B., native said before a Charlottetown Islanders practice this week.
But it’s only the first step as now the youngster has to find a way to get into the lineup and contribute on a veteran squad.
“We have a good team here, a lot of vets, a lot of hard-working guys that are going to help me develop into the player I’m going to be when I’m older,” Johnston said.
He also says he’s a hard-working player and noted he has grit in his game and doesn’t mind playing an agitator role. He likes the game of NHLers Jamie Benn, Matthew Tkachuk and Brandon Dubinksy and notes he is at his best when he’s skating hard, hitting and chirping at the other team. But Johnston can also put the puck in the net and be a playmaker.
These latter two qualities made it hard for the Islanders a year ago, when Johnston had done enough to make the team, but would have been relegated to fourth-line duties as a 16-year-old forward.
The team decided it was best for his development to send him back to the Saint John Vito’s major midget squad to play a lot and in a variety of situations.
“It’s not an easy thing to get demoted no matter what walk of life you’re in,” Isles head coach and general manager Jim Hulton said. “It’s not fun. You have to handle it properly.”
Johnston said it was tough news to hear at the time, but he knew he was young and had to physically mature.
“It’s tough, but it’s Q hockey. It’s the best of the best here,” he said. “There’s nothing really you can do, just use it as motivation really.”
Hulton said there were some growing pains in the early days of his return to midget, but former NHLer Randy Jones did a great job as his midget coach. Johnston responded and got better as the year went on and had a strong playoff run.
Now 12 months after being sent back to midget, Johnston has earned his jersey for the upcoming season.
“It worked obviously, and now I’m here,” he said, recalling back to receiving the news from the Isles brass that he was sticking around this time.
“It was awesome,” he said. “My mom and dad were there. It was just a great feeling, finally signing. I had a smile on my face the whole night.”
And Johnston hasn’t eased off the throttle since then.
He had a pair of goals as the Islanders won 7-0 a week ago in Saint John against the Sea Dogs.
“That was awesome in front of the hometown,” he said, noting family and friends were in the stands to support him. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”
The Islanders could have as many as 13 returnees this season with three veteran additions to the roster. But there is room for youngsters, like Johnston, to show what they can do.
“On a veteran team, the challenge coming in as a young guy is to create a niche and do something aside from the crowd that’s going to get you in the lineup every night,” Hulton said.
Keith Getson is often held up as a guy that players could model themselves after. He was a big scorer in bantam and midget hockey in Nova Scotia. He made the Islanders as a 16-year-old and found a role by being a good penalty killer the coaching staff could trust. His role has only increased as he enters his fifth season in the league.
“It’s a great example,” Hulton said. “Getsy is wonderful example for any of our young players coming in.”
The Islanders open the regular season Friday at home against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles at 7:30 p.m. at the Eastlink Centre.