The Columbus Blue Jackets are hanging on the cusp of playoff positioning in the weak Metropolitan Division, no small feat considering their rash of injuries of their premier players – Marian Gaborik, James Wisniewski, reigning Vezina Trophy recipient Sergei Bobrovsky and Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signing Nathan Horton.
However, through the ups-and-downs, one player appears to be coming into his own: former 4th overall pick – 2010 National Hockey League (NHL) Entry Draft – Ryan Johansen.
Johansen, once believed to be the ‘poster child’ of how not to develop an elite prospect, something the Blue Jackets were all too well known for doing in their two previous regimes, has emerged as its best player, one who garners the yeoman duty of facing their opponents top forward lines, is now drawing the same attention from the opposing teams. Johansen is currently ‘on fire’, having scored 13 points in his last 10 games played on six (6) goals and seven (7) assists.
The path for Johansen has not always been an easy one. He was often benched – in the NHL lexicon, a ‘healthy scratch’ for 15 games of his rookie season, a season which many NHL personnel executives anonymously believed would have been better served through allowing Johansen to remain in the Major Junior Western Hockey League (WHL).
Johansen began the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Springfield Falcons, was then summoned up to the parent Blue Jackets squad after the lockout was settled, initially relegated to drawing assignments on the Blue Jackets bottom forward lines, not earning the trust of Head Coach Todd Richards and was subsequently demoted to the Blue Jackets’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Springfield, Mass after once again drawing the wrath of Head Coach Todd Richards for eight games.
After being summoned back to the parent squad, Johansen began to display the promise and steady, two-way play that earned being assigned to their opponents top forward lines, drawing the likes of Joe Thornton, David Backes, Zack Parise and Ryan Getzlaf. The Blue Jackets narrowly missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite a furious 19-5-5 run after a stagnant 5-12-2 start.
In order to provide Johansen with invaluable playoff experience, he was sent to Springfield for their AHL playoff series against the Manchester Monarchs; however, Johansen had only one assist and went an awful -8 +/- rating in the first three games of that playoff series and was subsequently benched by Falcons Head Coach Brad Larsen.
It was believed that Johansen was unhappy with being brought back down to Springfield and became particularly unhappy after being benched by Larsen. Now Johansen drew the ire of a new Blue Jackets executive: General Manager (GM) Jarmo Kekalainen.
Kekalainen addressed the issue and provided insight on how he and the new Blue Jackets regime were going to handle player accountability, going forward.
“I think this is probably going to be a disappointment (to Johansen), to say the least, maybe a bit embarrassing,” Kekalainen explained, “Hopefully, he takes it the right way, gets to work this summer and shows us in the fall that he has taken it to heart and he’s ready to earn a spot (on the Blue Jackets).”
Then, when asked about the possibility that Johansen might have been unhappy about the AHL assignment, Kekalainen uttered this justly measured comment, “I don’t have any indication that he’d be unhappy. I really don’t care if he was unhappy.”
As is often said: message…sent.
Johansen took the comments in the proper, mature manner and dedicated himself in the off-season, coming into camp in vastly-improved condition.
This new-found maturity and attitude drew the respect of both Kekalainen and Richards and Johansen began to jettison up to the Blue Jackets top forward lines and became a key contributor to the NHL’s youngest team, leading the Blue Jackets in goals and points scored with 12 goals and 26 total points in 33 games played.
Adding to this up-tick in performance, Johansen has become one of the NHL’s hottest players and is on pace for nearly a point per game played, easily tripling his point per game pace of his prior two seasons played in the NHL.
And Johansen has become the lynchpin of the Blue Jackets effort to ‘hold the fort’ until their elite players return to action, which hopefully occurs no later than the beginning of the New Year.
Assuming that the 21 year old Johansen has arrived, as many in the NHL circles are beginning to take notice of, he should easily center the Blue Jackets top forward line, along with Horton and Gaborik and continue the ascent that the promising center has displayed, thus far this season.