Though Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen feels like the weight he carried on his shoulders for two seasons has been lifted, all it means is that expectations for the 21-year-old are on the rise and the pressure is mounting.
"I can see a level I want to get to," Johansen told NHL.com. "In Pittsburgh [on Dec. 9], my line was matched up against Sidney Crosby's line the whole game, and he was pretty tough to keep up to. At times I felt I was right there with him, and then there were times when I was chasing him all over the ice. It's exciting, though, feeling that I'm getting close and can be a good player in this League."
Johansen has proven at least that much this season with a team-high 27 points in 34 games, including 11 during his current nine-game point streak. He had 33 points in 107 games over his first two seasons.
Blue Jackets center Brandon Dubinsky said Johansen's preparation has improved this season.
"He's not having these highs and lows, which you often see with young guys, especially young, talented guys," Dubinsky told NHL.com. "He's starting to come into every game and believes he can dominate those games. He's a big-bodied player who has the skill level of a little guy. He's definitely starting to take over games more and more."
Despite his age and obvious need to grow up in the NHL, Johansen spent his first two seasons wondering if he would ever come close to reaching the potential he came into the League with as the No. 4 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. He never felt like he was good enough to control the pace of the game, let alone set the pace like elite players do. He never felt fast enough or strong enough to play opposite the best centers.
Of course, nobody in Columbus expected him to be at that level as a 19- or 20-year-old, but try telling a high draft pick that he still has to grow into his 6-foot-3 body and go through the growing pains of a young player trying to make it in the NHL.
Johansen hated it.
"I knew I had something to prove," Johansen said. "People were kind of waiting to see me develop and become the player they thought I could be."
He's doing that now.
Johansen felt confident about his good moments against Crosby in Columbus' 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He recalled a game against the Boston Bruins in late November when he never felt out of place going up against Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci. He played well when matched up against Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild.
It's a relief.
"It really is when you think about it," Johansen said. "At the start of this year it kind of clicked for me. I felt faster. I felt stronger. I felt I could beat guys to pucks more often. Those little things help you become an elite player."
But Johansen isn't there yet. Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen wants to make sure he remembers that.
"I think he has the ability to set the pace for the shift every time he steps on the ice, but you have to be in top condition, strong, fast, all those things," Kekalainen told NHL.com. "He's still young. He has to do more work on his body to get stronger, faster, more endurance. The top players are the top players because they set the pace consistently, shift after shift.
"He's just starting to realize the potential he has. The sky is the limit for this guy with the size and skill he has, but there is so much more room for improvement even with the season he's having."
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Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer