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Penguins prospect Adam Johnson could catapult up depth chart

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, 7:51 p.m.
Minnesota-Duluth center Adam Johnson (left) and Harvard right wing Tyler Moy chase the puck during the an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Chicago. Johnson signed with the Penguins and is playing in the team's prospect tournament this weekend.
Minnesota-Duluth center Adam Johnson (left) and Harvard right wing Tyler Moy chase the puck during the an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Chicago. Johnson signed with the Penguins and is playing in the team's prospect tournament this weekend.

As recently as three months ago, Adam Johnson was expecting he would be starting his junior year at Minnesota-Duluth about now, putting in work on a degree in economics.

Instead, out of all the prospects who will be attending Penguins training camp when it opens next Friday, he's the one with the greatest potential to make a big splash on the organizational depth chart.

Undrafted as an 18-year-old, the 23-year-old Johnson came to the team's summer development camp in Cranberry on a tryout, expecting to learn a little bit about the way the Penguins do business and perhaps improve his prospect stock.

Instead, the Penguins made a full-court press to sign him.

“I wasn't really expecting it, but it was a nice surprise,” Johnson said.

Johnson weighed his options. He loved the practice facility. He was impressed by the coaching staff. Perhaps most importantly, he looked at the team's depth chart at the center position and saw opportunity.

With Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen gone in free agency, Carter Rowney and Jay McClement are penciled in as the third- and fourth-line centers entering training camp. There's a pool of prospects vying to be next in line, starting with Teddy Blueger and Jean-Sebastien Dea, but there's nothing standing in front of Johnson that could be considered an immovable roadblock.

“That was a big reason I thought it might be a good fit here for me, and it was a reason I decided to come now,” Johnson said.

Assistant general manager Bill Guerin spearheaded the Johnson recruiting effort.

“His strength is his skating,” Guerin said. “He has good hockey sense. He had a really good, short career at Minnesota-Duluth, where he developed quickly. When he came to development camp, his skating really stood out. He was on a good team and a winning program and learned a lot there. He's the type of kid, character-wise, that we like.”

Johnson played all three forward positions in college, only settling in as a center last year. As such, there's one part of his game he's not sure is ready for prime time.

“I hope to kind of keep improving on my faceoffs,” Johnson said. “That's been my big weakness. If I can get that down, maybe I'll fit well.”

Johnson is just as sure about what part of his game is already professional grade.

“My biggest asset is probably my speed,” Johnson said. “That's the thing I look to bring to the organization.”

It's probably not reasonable to expect Johnson to skip the minor leagues entirely. He was Minnesota-Duluth's second-leading scorer with 37 points in 42 games last season, but his resume is still light on experience. His 6-foot, 175-pound could also use more bulk.

To help shore up both those weaknesses, he arrived in Pittsburgh more than a month before the start of camp, working out at the facility in Cranberry and renting a house with fellow prospects Zach Aston-Reese, Thomas Di Pauli and Freddie Tiffels.

“It was a good month,” Johnson said. “We got to meet a lot of the guys and got a good base. We enjoyed it. It was nice to get to know each other pretty well going into the season.”

Johnson's first shot at an NHL roster spot began with this weekend's prospect tournament in Buffalo, where he centered the top line with Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong on his wings.

“I hope to make a good first impression,” Johnson said.

Note: Jesse Gabriel scored two minutes into overtime to give Boston a 3-2 victory over the Penguins in the opener of the tournament Friday afternoon. Tryouts Jordy Bellerive and Sam Miletic scored for the Penguins, who will meet New Jersey at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.comor via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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