Young Johansen growing into threat with more ice time

Jan 30, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen (19) celebrates his goal against the Washington Capitals at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

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The final year of a contract is always an important time for a player. They want to make a positive impression on the club and hopefully get a raise. This is especially true for a player in the final year of their entry-level contract.

The 2013-2014 season is the third year of center Ryan Johansen’s entry-level contract. This summer, he’ll reach restricted free agent status. Assuming that he will reach all of the performance bonuses built into his contract and based on his play to date, he has earned a substantial raise from the $1.9 million he’ll make this season.

There were high expectations for the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. His first year in Columbus was a time of turmoil and change within the organization. The team started the 2011-12 season with an abysmal 2-12-1 record. The trade rumors surrounding Rick Nash gained momentum throughout the season, culminating in his trade the following summer. That year, Johansen would play in 67 games, putting up 9-12-21, -2.

The lockout-shortened season that followed saw the young center suit up for 40 of the 48 games on the schedule, going 5-7-12, -7. At the conclusion of the season, he was sent to Columbus’ AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons. The low point for him was being benched by Springfield coach Brad Larsen during the second round of the AHL playoffs. His aloofness had caught up with him.

Last summer, he got himself in shape both physically and mentally. At the ripe old age of 21, he has turned that aloofness into a confidence and drive that is seeing him meet the expectations of what he could be when he was drafted. Through 55 games played this year, he’s garnered 22-20-42, -2, and leads the team in goals, points and shots on goal (153).

"Experience, that’s what sticks out most to me," he said when asked what is the one thing to which he attributes his success. "When I first came to the organization, they started teaching me the defensive side of the game. Once I gained the trust of the coaches, I could have more freedom offensively."

"I kept working at getting better offensively and now I feel that I’m pretty good at both ends of the rink. With all of the experience of games played and working in the gym, I feel that I’ve gotten bigger in the last two years. Really, all the little things leading up to now, midway through my third season, I’ve taken a few big strides."

This new confidence in his game is translating to prowess on the ice. He’s becoming a player that teams have to plan for and key on throughout the game. "For our team, if we’re playing an opponent and one of their players has been having success lately, we make sure that we key on him. We’ll point him out before the game. That’s the way every team is."

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For not only Johansen, but the team as a whole, confidence is growing. They are making passes to make plays instead of passing the puck in deference to a "star" player, as was the case in years past. They are generating time and space while being opportunistic and creating scoring chances.

"I think team confidence is the reason for that," he said. "We’ve found some line combinations that work. We’re more comfortable with each other out on the ice. When you play with line-mates for a long period of time, you get to know where they are on the ice and what their strengths are. It makes it easier to make those plays when you’re comfortable with who you’re playing with. I think our team has been making a lot of great plays recently. It shows, because we’ve scored a bunch of goals in the last few games. It’s a good sign."

He has played on a line with Nick Foligno and RJ Umberger for a majority of the season before recently centering Nathan Horton and Boone Jenner. This new line combination has seen success in the last few games.

"It’s changed the last couple of games, but mostly for the last year and a half, it’s been the same line. It’s a great feeling coming to the rink and knowing who you’re with every day. You get in a routine. You push yourselves and talk to each other on and off the ice. It’s a really important thing to build chemistry to the point where you can have success on the ice."

Nathan Horton sees the newfound confidence of Johansen and relishes playing as his line-mate. "He’s a good player," said Horton. "Guys like that, you want them to have the puck as much as possible. I like playing with him, He’s got great vision. He does everything. We’ve seen it (recently) with the goals he’s scored. This guy has it. He’s got all the tools."

In just the last two games, Johansen is 3-1-4, +5. "Lately, it feels like we always have the puck," Horton continued. "I think, as a hockey player, that’s what you want. You don’t want to feel like you’re chasing the puck the whole game. Whether I had it, he had it or Jenner had it, someone had the puck when we called for it."

As the team grows and gains experience, so is Johansen. He has yet to realize his full potential. Yet, he is part of the "core" of a team that is gaining the confidence to play consistent hockey. The sky seems to be the limit for young Johansen.