Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen is only 21 years old (will turn 22 later this summer), but he’s been through a lot in his young NHL career.
Everyone knows the story by now, but we'll summarize: he was the No.4 overall pick at the 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles, and while the players picked ahead of him - Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and Erik Gudbranson - saw their pro careers start almost immediately, Johansen had to wait a little while and he had to go through some growing pains.
He was a late bloomer in his junior career and had to work his way up the Portland Winterhawks’ depth chart, but once he grabbed the No. 1 center role, he never let go. In fact, he kept getting better; his explosive offensive game caught the Blue Jackets’ attention early on in his draft year and as he kept improving, his place atop the Columbus draft board only solidified.
He started the 2011-12 season with the Blue Jackets and when the team decided to keep him beyond the 10-game threshold and start the clock on his entry level contract, much was expected of Johansen right away but it was a slow build. After starting the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Springfield Falcons, Johansen struggled out of the gate with the Blue Jackets and was sent back to the AHL early in the season.
When he returned, he found a home on a checking line with RJ Umberger and Nick Foligno - a line that was clutch for Columbus down the stretch - but his game went to another level this past season.
Johansen led the team with 33 goals in 2013-14 and took the giant leap forward that many associated with the Blue Jackets organization had been waiting for - but GM Jarmo Kekalainen knows there’s still more that Johansen can give.
“The young players earned every step of the way - there were no favors done,” Kekalainen said. “It makes me really excited about the potential of our group. I can’t wait to get started next year. It’s exciting to look at our guys on an individual level and see the room for improvement. We have the youngest team in the league and everyone can get better…I’m so excited about the potential there. We don’t have any guys that are ‘over the hill.’
“(With Johansen)…I get goosebumps thinking about where this guy could go with his career. It’s basically all in his control. They can take their game to the next level just by working hard or working smarter and putting the effort and commitment into the offseason.”
Back-to-back summers of an intense training regimen have helped Johansen augment his agility and add muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame, but now, he’s entering a different kind of summer process. He’ll still train as usual, but as of July 5, Johansen is a restricted free agent and will require a new contract.
Kekalainen and the Blue Jackets hockey operations staff have already begun performing their due diligence in preparation for contract negotiations their budding star center, in hopes that the process concludes in a fair deal for both sides.
“We have our (salary) projections and I won’t get into those,” Kekalainen said. “But I’m not worried about getting him signed. I’m convinced that we will. He’s a good player for us, and I mentioned he’s one of those players I’m excited about getting to the next level.
“I told him: ‘we’re going to push you.’ We have a special player in our hands, and we’re going to make sure we push (him) to the next level and he’s going to help us. I’m sure we’ll get him signed through the proper process and he’ll be a big part of our future.”