Breakout star Johansen the new Rick Nash?

Columbus Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen credits more ice time and his linemates for his incredible breakout season.
March 27, 2014, 10:57 AM

Question: What do NHL offensive studs Jeff Carter, Taylor Hall, Thomas Vanek, Jarome Iginla, Jonathan Toews, Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Rick Nash all have in common?

Answer: None of them have scored as often this season as Ryan Johansen of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

After his two-goal game Tuesday against Detroit in a crucial wild-card battle, Johansen leapt into a tie with household names Patrick Kane and Martin St. Louis for 14th overall in NHL goals. But there are some striking differences between the 21-year-old Johansen and the elite few above him in the Rocket Richard Trophy race.

No player who has scored more than the Port Moody, B.C., native’s 29 goals is younger than him. Everyone ahead of the third-year centre averages at least 46 seconds more ice time per game and has been nationally televised in 2013-14 more than Johansen’s twice. And no one ahead of Johansen was such a non-factor last season.

Johansen is in the midst of his first double-digit-goal season after scoring just 14 goals and 19 assists total in his first 107 career contests as a freshman and sophomore. Which is a mathematical way of saying he’s in the throes of one hell of a breakout year — and has probably made one guy in your fantasy pool look very prescient.

When the Columbus Dispatch recently asked Nash who would succeed the former face of the Blue Jackets franchise as The Man in Ohio hockey, Nash named Johansen.

“Pucks have been going in for me,” Johansen says by way of explanation, after a big win over the Maple Leafs earlier this month. As far as emerging hockey star self-analysis goes, that’s about as aw-shucks as it gets.

A balled-up hunk of shin pad tape is whipped across the dressing room from a Blue Jackets equipment guy and pings the team’s most productive forward in the chest. Johansen smiles wide and deflects credit like a James Wisniewski point shot.

“You gotta grow with some guys and build some chemistry. Most of the year I played with Umby [R.J. Umberger] and [Nick] Foligno. They’re two veteran guys in the league who’ve taught me a lot. As of late I’ve played with [Nathan] Horton and Boone [Jenner],” Johansen says. “Horton’s a Stanley Cup winner, a guy who knows how to get it done. And Boone’s like me — a young guy. I’ve never seen a guy who works so hard. Two great guys to play with.”

OK, so Johansen likes his linemates and might be benefitting from the kiss of puck luck. But there must be more to it. Unless you get plopped on a line with Crosby or Gretzky, you don’t magically go from scoring once every eight games to a nightly threat.

Better than a point-per-game player in two seasons and two playoff runs for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, Johansen steadily climbed the pro scouts’ rankings and was drafted fourth overall in 2010, behind Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin but ahead of Jeff Skinner and Cam Fowler.

The early returns were less than spectacular. So Todd Richards and the Columbus coaching staff sat down with Johansen — a world junior tournament all-star for Canada’s 2011 silver-medal-winning team — prior to this season and designed a give-and-give play. Johansen would get more ice time, and in return he would step up his contribution to a team that was moving to the weaker Eastern Conference and had its sights set on securing the franchise’s second playoff berth ever.

“Especially the way my first two seasons went, definitely they wanted more out of me, and they knew they could get more out of me. And I knew I could do better myself,” Johansen says. “I came into this year after really working in the offseason and really prepared myself to have a year that I’m having.

“You work on everything in the summer. If you’re not getting better in all areas of the game, it’ll be noticeable on the ice.”

Johansen has found himself more involved in all aspects of the game. His ice time has jumped to 17:36, up from 16:05 per game in 2012-13, which was already significant bump from 12:44 in his rookie year. His 2:37 per game on the power play and 0:46 on the penalty kill are career highs, and only one NHL centre (Joe Pavelski) has as many goals as Johansen while maintaining a face-off percentage better than the kid’s 53%. Johansen says this has all translated into a self-confidence that has snowballed as the young Jackets storm into a wild-card race crowded with three Eastern clubs under far more pressure – the Maple Leafs, Red Wings and Capitals.

“My first year, the game was really fast — almost too fast at times. I knew I had to get my leg speed up, my quickness. With that, then my hands could take over and my vision. I feel like the game has slowed down for me,” Johansen says. The rink has become his Matrix.

Unlike in Toronto or Washington, the playoffs present possibility rather than anxiety for a group with a gentler fan base (despite demanding a trade out of Columbus, Nash was welcomed back with a video tribute last weekend) and zero historic benchmarks to live up to. Remember, Columbus is still looking for its first playoff win — and we’re talking game, not series.

“That’s what’s so motivating right now. It’s exciting, especially for the young guys in here. We haven’t got a taste of it yet. I feel like we’re coming closer and closer to the team game that we want,” Johnasen says. “So it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink right now and lacing up the skates. We’re going to do everything we can to find a way to get in there.”

Even more ice time for Johansen would be a fine place to start.

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