It was all about keeping the motor running at peak RPMs. Ryan Johansen, the young Blue Jackets center, had started this season with the motor purring just fine, thank you. Actually, he had earned a spot on the team at the start of the season in January because his performance during the brief preseason camp was all about effort and intensity. The motor was well tuned.
But the motor began to sputter a bit several games into the season, 10 to be exact. The coaching staff noticed a drop-off in Johansen’s compete level, and the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft was abruptly reassigned to Springfield of the AHL after the Blue Jackets’ home loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 5.
So, what happened? A young player with Johansen’s pedigree and potential doesn’t suddenly forget what it takes to play consistently at the NHL level, right? He knows what to do and how to do it, but there’s a direct connection between the ability to produce at this level and a player’s mindset. For Johansen, it’s all about comfortability and confidence.
“Definitely, the more comfortable I feel out there, and the better I’m playing, obviously your confidence is going to grow,” he said. “And if I’m finding ways to get a puck in the back of the net or even doing the little things in my own zone, maybe block a shot, all that stuff helps, too. I’m just trying to help the team win, and the biggest thing is winning. When the team is winning the confidence goes up, and the guys in the room feel good about each other.
“As long as I’m doing the best I can trying to help the team win, then I should keep growing with my game.”
In his first game back with the team after being recalled from Springfield last week, it was apparent Johansen was playing with confidence. Although the team lost 1-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks on the road, there was a lot to like about the 6-foot-3 native of British Columbia’s game, and the head coach took notice.
“He looked fast; he had a lot of jump,” said Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. “He had some scoring opportunities and helped create some scoring opportunities. On the power play, he supported the puck well; those are things that we’re looking for from him. But really it’s his battle and his compete level, and I thought he did that against Chicago.”
In other words, Johansen was comfortable and playing with confidence. Part of that, too is playing to his size.
“For sure, that’s important for me,” he said. “I want to be strong down low and take pucks to the net, hang around those dirty areas. My size can definitely be an advantage out there, and it’s an asset to my game, so I should use it as best I can. I feel as though I’m a pretty good skater, too, so if I can take it along the boards against those guys and take it to the net, it’s a strong part of my game when I’m doing that.”
In his second game back with the team, Johansen was stopped by Dallas goaltender Richard Bachman on a breakaway. It would have been a huge goal for the team in its eventual overtime loss to the Stars. And it would have been huge for his overall confidence level.
“Physically you’re just working for those chances, trying to take pucks to the net, and shoot the puck as much as you can and create those scoring chances,” said Johansen, who scored nine goals in his rookie season last year. “And when those chances are there to put the puck in the net, you have to make sure that you bear down and try your best to score, because, as I said, you may not get more than one or two chances to score. The way this league is and as good as the goaltenders are, it’s tough to score.”
He was also a minus-3 in the second game back, so there was a bit of a drop-off in his overall play. Call it part of the development of an excellent young prospect. There will be more stops and starts for him on the path to consistent NHL production, but Johansen is learning what it takes to get there.
With his skill set, he’s been blessed with one fine motor. Now it’s a matter of keeping it revving, game after game.