For the Blue Jackets, a star has been born
The Blue Jackets had high hopes for the young player they drafted in the first round (4th overall) in the 2010 NHL draft. He had done very well in juniors, recording some impressive numbers. But, he struggled with his focus for his first two years in the NHL.
By all accounts, Ryan Johansen is a budding star that is just scratching the surface of his potential. In 107 games with the Blue Jackets in his first two seasons he recorded 14-19-33.When Columbus was eliminated from playoff contention at the end of the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, he was sent to the Springfield Falcons.
While there, he was benched during the AHL playoffs in 2013, ostensibly to send a message to the young center. The question was simply one of would Johansen respond positively to this message.
Just looking at the numbers he posted last year will tell anyone that the message was received. He played all 82 games, going 33-30-63 in the regular season. In six playoff games, he recorded 2-4-6. It was the breakout year that everyone had hoped for.
"What I’ve really enjoyed seeing is the growth of Ryan Johansen since I got here," said Nick Foligno. "I came in here (July 2012) and he was still trying to find his way. You knew he had the talent but you didn’t really see that fight every night where he wanted to be the best player on the ice. And then all of a sudden, I don’t know what it was, something clicked last year. You could see that he wanted to be the best."
"He’s a guy that comes in and expects to be good every night. He wants to be the best player. He wants that responsibility."
The native of Port Moody, British Columbia has embraced and grown into the role of being the teams’ top line center. He can make plays and dazzle the fans with his scoring touch, all while making it seem effortless.
"You’re seeing him do things in games that not a lot of guys can do," Foligno said. "He can skate. He can hit. He’s got a heck of a shot. He can make plays that other guys don’t see. When you put all of that together, that’s a superstar. When he plays like that, night-in and night-out, there’s no reason why you can’t expect 100 points from a guy like him."
He’s learned to use his 6’3" frame and long reach to help keep possession of the puck and shield the opposition from gaining control. You can see other teams taking notice, seeing him as a player that can take control of a game. He also has deceptive speed that has burned other teams when they aren’t paying attention.
"I think he’s starting to become a star in this league," Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards said. "You can see it and teams have taken note. When I’m putting him out on changes, teams’ are matching up, or at least truing to match up their best defensemen. That’s the ultimate compliment; who does the opposition have playing against you."
"Joe is still really young and he’s still got, I’m not going to say a long way to go in his career, but I still believe he’s going to become a great player in this league. His first year in the league, he was kind of a role player trying to find himself. I think the second year he was feeling more confident. This year, what I’ve seen in him, is just that next step to be an NHL star."
He was selected to his first All Star Game as a player in January 2015, having been to the 2012 NHL All Star Game as a ‘Young Star’. He stole the show during the skills competition by taking Blue Jackets trainer Mike Vogt’s son Cole out on the ice and scoring with him. He was also named the 2015 NHL All Star Game’s Most Valuable Player.
"I think he’s at a point where his ceiling is even higher," Foligno said. "It’s fun to play with a guy like that because he makes your team better and he makes you better. I’m learning things from a young guy like him and hopefully he’s learning from us. But the gift that he has is incredible. It’s what is allowing him to play the way he does. If he can harness that night-in and night-out, he’ll be an elite player for a lot of years."
With the injury-ravaged season the Blue Jackets had this year Johansen has been given more responsibility and taken on a larger role within the team.
"With all of the injuries," said Johansen, "I’ve been put in a lot of situations. It’s the most penalty kill I’ve played in my career. It’s a credit to the guys I’m playing with and a credit to the team. I go out there and try my best to make plays and find scoring opportunities. It’s a big compliment to the guys I’m playing with that is making me better out on the ice. It’s been a tough year with the line combinations kind of all over the place. But, it’s been nice to find some consistency. I just want to keep improving in all areas every year."
Although he’s still young at 22 years old, he’s making strides in developing into an asset that any team would covet. Can he take the next step and become an elite player in the NHL?
"It’s a possibility," said Richards, "without question. He’s got all the talent and he’s got all the tools. He could definitely step into that description. The ultimate compliment is a team comes out and they have a game plan specifically for him."
By his own admission, he didn’t always take the game of hockey and the gift that he has as seriously as he should have. This was evidenced when he was benched in 2012 in Springfield. But, he learned from that experience and wants to pass along the knowledge he gained to the younger players on the team.
"I’m trying to help them with things that maybe took me a little longer to learn," Johansen said. "Hopefully they can go through it faster."
He’s gained a maturity in the last two years that is paying dividends on the ice. Knowing that skill will only take him so far, he’s buckled down and added the mental aspect of being the best player that he can be. Coupled this with his size and skill and there is no limit he cannot reach.
"He’s still a young man," Foligno said. "He’ll turn 23 this year. I think it’s the realization that he’s just as strong, if not stronger, than a lot of guys in this league. When he uses that, he’s creating more turnovers and more chances. Then he uses his speed to not only breakaway, but to make plays out of it. When you put all of those elements together, that’s really the coming out party of Ryan Johansen. When you put all of his attributes together, there are not a lot of guys in the league that can do what he does. I think that’s what makes him so dynamic."
Having missed training camp due to a contract impasse, he’s one of only three Blue Jackets players to pay in every game this season (Jack Johnson and David Savard are the other two). At times, he was playing well over 20 minutes per game because of the injury situation. Through 78 games, he’s notched 23-46-69, with the assist and points totals being new career-highs for him.
"With my size and my reach," Johansen said, "I need to be able to find ways to use my body to create opportunities. Especially this year, I feel more comfortable with (using) my body to shield the puck and protect it."
"This is my fourth year now and I’ve started taking on the role of being a leader, as well. It’s nothing to do with a letter (on his sweater) or anything like that; but as a player on the ice and helping this team win hockey games. It’s been a lot of fun taking on that role. I feel like I can be a difference-maker when I’m playing at the top of my game. I’ve really enjoyed that the most this year. I think I’ve taken a big step there."
He’s a dynamic player that is a burgeoning star on one of the youngest teams in the NHL. From his shootout prowess to his playmaking and scoring touch, he’s emerging as the type of player that stands out among others. As he develops, he can ultimately reach that elite status that Todd Richards alluded to.
Make no mistake; he loves Columbus and relishes being a Blue Jacket for many years to come. He understands that nothing can be taken for granted and that everything must be earned. He is part of the Blue Jackets family.
"This room is very special in here. That’s something that nobody takes for granted on this team. We have a ton of fun coming to the rink together and playing."
And that, really, is what it’s all about.
The Blue Jackets take on the New York Rangers at 7:00 p.m. Monday, with the FOX Sports Ohio pregame show "Blue Jackets LIVE" beginning at 6:30 p.m.