COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ryan Johansen endured the most grueling summer training of his life in order to prepare himself for a breakout season in the National Hockey League.
Though a work stoppage has him still waiting for that opportunity, he’s just fine helping the Springfield Falcons pile up wins in the American Hockey League. The first-place club has started 5-1-1 for the first time in its 19-year history, and Johansen is literally and figuratively in the middle of it all.
He is one of the team’s leading scorers with six points in seven games, carrying a +5 rating and anchoring the Falcons’ top line.
While some players take time to adjust to life in the AHL, an outstanding junior career and taste of the NHL last year have readied Johansen for this step.
“Nothing really caught me off-guard,” Johansen told BlueJackets.com when reflecting on his first days in the AHL. “There really weren’t any surprises, to tell you the truth. Obviously, there are different buildings than you’re used to and little things here and there.
“I was pretty confident in my game heading into camp with all of the work I put into my training this summer, and I felt really good. I went out there and tried to do my thing, and it turns out I’m off to a pretty good start.”
After bouncing around the Blue Jackets lineup at times last season and struggling to find regular line mates, Springfield head coach Brad Larsen installed him as the No. 1 center almost immediately.
Johansen has responded to the challenge issued by the coaching staff. From day one, the mandate to each player has been that every opportunity will be earned – and it’s a key component of the winning culture Larsen wants to create.
“Ryan has a very good skill set and he thinks the game well,” Blue Jackets assistant general manager Chris MacFarland told BlueJackets.com. “He’s playing a lot of minutes and with good players, he’s playing on the power play and killing penalties. It’s a lot of hockey and it’s a good league this year.
“So far, so good for him. He’s off to a good start.”
Johansen’s opening night line mates were Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (acquired in the offseason) and Cam Atkinson, and that trio stayed together for the first two-plus weeks of the season. Larsen made a slight adjustment last week, moving Atkinson to Matt Calvert’s line and slotting Tomas Kubalik on the right wing of the Johansen line.
The results have been encouraging. Johansen had a three-point weekend and scored the game-winning goal against the Portland Pirates on Sunday, and his line mates are helping him create a wealth of scoring chances.
“We’re in a spot where any shift can change the game,” Johansen said of his line. “I feel so confident playing on that line, and I have a real good jump to my game. At this point, for me, it’s about moving forward and keep doing what I’m doing and staying consistent every night.
“Hopefully I can do that and we can keep racking up the wins here.”
Despite the strong start for both Johansen and the Falcons, MacFarland strongly believes this is just a glimpse of the dynamic player they selected fourth overall in the 2010 NHL Draft.
The Blue Jackets coaching staff laid out their offseason expectations for all players, and one of Johansen’s objectives was to add some bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame. After a summer working in Vancouver with Blue Jackets strength and conditioning intern Jeff Conkle, he added over 10 pounds of muscle and arrived at development camp noticeably bigger.
“He’s a big kid that’s still growing into his frame, and he’s going to be a real strong player,” MacFarland said. “As he does get stronger and adds that to the assets he already has, it’s going to make him an even better player down the road.
“I think he’s fit in very well down there, too. He’s getting a lot of ice time and he knows what the coaches’ expectations are for him – not just in games but in practice. He has all the ability in the world, and he’s definitely a key guy in that lineup.”
At just 20 years of age, Johansen is one of the go-to players on a very talented team. Opposing teams are taking note and assigning their best defensive players to his line, but he is still finding a way to be a difference-maker.
In addition to expectations, trust has been developed since training camp opened, Johansen said. Larsen has given the players a lot of responsibility, and they believe that any one of them can make a contribution when they hop over the boards.
“We’ve been put in positions where we can play well, play a lot and everyone has to earn it,” Johansen said. “Brad wants us to control the game while we’re out there on the ice and he wants the top players to be the leaders.
“There’s a lot of trust with our coaching staff. We feel we can make something happen whenever they tap our line to go out there, so we want to keep going and try to grab as many wins as we can here.”