The Blue Jackets wear a motto on their t-shirts that embodies what they want each player to do: “Earn It.”
Following practice November 1, Ryan Johansen got the news he was waiting for: he earned a spot on the roster beyond the 10-game threshold. Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel and general manager Scott Howson were waiting in the head coach’s office adjacent to the locker room, and Johansen knew soon after his goal had been achieved.
“It was after practice, we had a little workout and then I was hanging out in the lounge,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “Howson pulled me into Arniel’s office and it was just the two of them. Arniel had a smile on his face so I kind of knew it was going to be a positive outcome.
“They told me I was staying, and they think I can help the team win games.”
Johansen has helped the team win in a literal sense of late, scoring two goals (both game-winning goals) in the past four games against quality opponents in the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. Both goals were “skill” goals, as well – he perfectly played a rebound off the end board and banked the puck off Red Wings goalie Ty Conklin’s skate into the net, a power-play goal that gave the Blue Jackets a 2-1 lead and ended up being the game-winner.
His finest tally came Sunday against the Ducks, splitting the defense after taking a stretch pass from Antoine Vermette and looking off his winger on an odd-man rush. Johansen went to his backhand and chipped it inside the post on Dan Ellis’ blocker side – a true goal scorer’s goal.
Arniel attributes much of Johansen’s improved play to his work ethic after being switched to right wing. Johansen, a natural center, didn’t gripe or complain about the position switch. Instead, he embraced it.
“I finally saw his offense,” Arniel said of the switch. “I think through training camp and the games he’s played in the middle of the ice, we were trying so hard not to give up a goal and defend. Every time he got the puck it was like he was out of gas, or going on a line change.
“On the wing, so far it’s less thinking for him and a simpler game. Now we’re seeing some of the stuff we saw in junior hockey, and it’s a good sign.”
Johansen said the move to right wing has loosened him up a bit, and enabled his skills to come to the fore. Playing center ice in the NHL is a huge responsibility for any player - not just a 19-year-old – and getting on the wing lets him use his speed and drive to the net.
“In the center, there’s a little bit more responsibility in the defensive zone,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “Even when you’re in the offensive zone, you have to make sure you’re getting back in coverage.
“As a winger, I can be down low behind the net in the offensive zone and be more aggressive. I feel a lot more confident and comfortable on the wing right now.”
With any young player, the goal is always to achieve consistency. There are games when rookies are the No. 1 star and the next could be a forgettable outing, but staying level and focusing on good work habits are integral parts of player development. Arniel and the Blue Jackets coaching staff saw great improvement in Johansen’s game from the open of training camp until his ninth NHL game.
“He feels comfortable, (but) he still has a ways to go with some consistency,” Arniel said. “He’s had some good games, and then he’s dropped off and then bounces back. That’s usually what young players do; we will continue to work with him on his consistency and doing the right things.
“He’s got a lot of tools we could use right now.”
Not too long ago, Johansen was trying to move up the lineup of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. He played third and fourth-line minutes early on in junior hockey, and like every player with a professional aspiration, he wanted more.
The following months resulted in a meteoric rise for the Port Moody, B.C. native, culminating with being selected as the Blue Jackets’ first-round draft pick in 2010. From this year’s first preseason game in Winnipeg, Johansen has studied film and worked with his coaches to correct mistakes. Now, he’s getting results.
“My game has come a long way,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “I remember sitting down with (assistant coach) Dan Hinote after our first preseason game and watching video with him – I was seeing a lot of things I really need to work on.
“Watching film of some recent games, I’m really seeing a difference in how I’m playing. I’ve improved and developed, and now I have to keep going forward with it.”