“Joey can be the best player in this entire league. There’s no doubt.”
Ryan Murray didn’t hesitate when he said it, either.
He has seen first-hand the meteoric rise of his friend and teammate, 22-year-old star center Ryan Johansen, who has managed to take yet another step forward after breaking out in 2013-14 with 33 goals and 63 points.
The two have a history that predates their time in Columbus, too; Murray, a standout defenseman for the Everett Silvertips and Johansen with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL), had several battles in major junior hockey over the course of two seasons from 2009-2011.
It’s somewhat hard to believe, but Johansen was the 150th pick in his bantam draft, perhaps because his family moved from metropolitan Vancouver to a suburb called Port Moody, but maybe because he was just destined to be a late bloomer who took a while to grow into his body. The Winterhawks took a chance because they believed in him, and Johansen paid off their faith by being a near point-per-game player in his first season (his draft year, too) and exploding a year later.
Johansen had 69 points in 71 games during his rookie WHL season, good for second among all first-year players in the league. Who was the top-scoring WHL rookie that year? Kevin Connauton.
“Man, it was brutal playing against him at times,” Murray said of Johansen. “I knew him back when he was 17 and I was 16. I think that was his first year in the WHL and he wasn’t that well-known at the start, but by the end of the year, everyone knew his name. Everyone knew what he could do.
“The next year, he got even better. And the year after that, too. He gets better every year, so it’s not a surprise to see how good he is right now.”
The Blue Jackets and former GM Scott Howson made Johansen the fourth overall pick in 2010, raising some eyebrows in NHL media but not many eyebrows within the scouting community. Johansen was high on the Jackets’ list all along, and it was pretty close to a slam-dunk when they walked to the podium at STAPLES Center to make that selection.
And Johansen kept getting better. He racked up 92 points (with 40 goals) in his first season back with Portland after being drafted by Columbus, and was selected to represent Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship. Confidence soaring and game growing, Johansen never really looked back from there.
His name may not be a household one just yet, but it’s definitely not an under-the-radar one, either. Take it from someone like Murray, who had the task of slowing him down as a burgeoning junior and now has to slow him down in practice at the NHL level.
“If it was a secret before, it’s definitely being revealed now,” Murray said. “He gets points every night, he knows how to create plays and whenever the puck is on his stick, he’s dangerous. He has a way of knowing where everyone is on the ice, and he can find you because he has such great vision. You can see his skills in the offensive zone, but even in the neutral zone, you’ll see him make plays that no one else can.
“It’s unbelievable sometimes. He’ll draw an extra guy to him and then drop a pass to a guy coming late and something will develop out of it, just stuff like that you notice when you watch him play every night.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Johansen. He proved a lot of people wrong (particularly those who passed him over in junior hockey) on his route to the NHL, but his rookie season was chaotic.
The Blue Jackets struggled mightily in 2011-12, firing former coach Scott Arniel after less than two seasons on the job, and went on to finish 30th out of 30 teams despite improved play in the second half under then-interim coach Todd Richards, who recently picked up his 200th career win and is on the verge of becoming the winningest coach in franchise history.
After that forgettable season, the Blue Jackets welcomed in a new management group led by Hall of Famer John Davidson. They made an unpopular decision right out of the gate, sending Johansen back to Springfield (AHL) as the lockout-shortened 2013 season began.
Johansen was recalled later in that season and began to gain his footing in the NHL. The next season, he was a major factor in the Blue Jackets reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time in their history and started to strengthen his grip on the team’s No. 1 center position with a breakout campaign.
As part of his next big step forward, now, Johansen is becoming an elite 200-foot player, Davidson said.
“He’s always been good defensively, even before he became better offensively,” Davidson told BlueJackets.com. “I remember games from a couple of years ago and he would go up against the Sedins, Getzlaf, and he did a good job for a young player. This year, his face-offs have been really good – when he has to go in and win a draw, he wins it. He’s always conscientious about his defensive game, which is good for a player his age, and his offense is picking up.
“What I see is the maturity, the passion for the game and playing the game the right way and having fun while doing it. I think he enjoys the group here and we enjoy having him. In management, we have these young players and so often you want them to be good ‘right now,’ but it takes time to evolve. He’s still not to where he’s going to get to, and it just shows that’s how good he is.”
Now with another strong season under his belt, setting a new career high in assists (43) points (69) despite missing the entirety of training camp due to ongoing contract negotiations, the days of being a budding star appear to be nearing an end.
Johansen, equipped with what Davidson says is the complete toolbox, is merely scratching the surface of his full potential but he’s already an impact player.
And for Davidson, it makes the team’s present and future all the more exciting.
“He’s getting to the point where he understands that he’s a very important player for us,” Davidson said. “You see his strength, his size, his vision and his poise with the puck. There’s hockey sense to his game, and hockey sense is a term that’s used a lot in our game. A lot of people have it and a lot people don’t have it, and some people – not many – have hockey sense in an extremely strong way, and Joey’s one of those guys. He’s just learning how big and strong he is.
“There’s a lot there to love, and I’m real glad he’s ours.”