Ross Johnston's top-line assignment with Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey reached its fourth-straight game on Thursday night, as the Isles beat the Florida Panthers 3-1.
Head Coach Barry Trotz decided to pair the Isles biggest player alongside their best a week ago, but there was some precedent for the coach's decision. After all, it was Johnston who flanked Barzal - alongside Jordan Eberle - during the Isles Sept. 17 preseason win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
Part of the pre-season line combo was due to the natural mixing and matching of 70-man training camp roster, but part of it was also an opportunity for Johnston, who made an impression on Trotz with the development in his game.
"You kept seeing it as the season went on last year. He kept working on all the stuff that we wanted him to work on," Trotz said. "I felt that he was making progress there and that's what you want. He got more touches and played with more elite type of players on a regular basis. You'd be amazed, some of the great lines in the league have had that element in the past and still do to this day."
The Isles are 3-1-0 in their last four games and Johnston hit the scoresheet with his second goal of the season on Monday night in Tampa. For Johnston, even getting this opportunity represents how far he's come since joining the organization back on March 31, 2015.
Then, Johnston was an undrafted 21-year-old playing for the Charlottetown Islanders in the QMJHL, who had made an impression on as an invitee at the Isles 2014 Development Camp. But in his first season, he found himself in ECHL Missouri for 13 games and despite making his NHL debut in the Isles' last game of the season, spent the entire 2016-17 campaign in Bridgeport. He split the 2017-18 season between the NHL and AHL and has been up full time ever since.
"It's very rewarding to look at the path I took," Johnston said. "The first year had a lot of challenges, I had an injury, I was down in the coast [ECHL] for a bit, I was back up… A lot of long years, but the development and the coaches that have helped me along the way and the players that I played with just the lessons I've learned. Now that I'm here able to implement it in the NHL and take advantage of the opportunity I've been given, I'm thankful."
The 6'5, 235 lbs. farm boy is probably better known for throwing hands with the biggest and baddest in the NHL - he's 10-0 in his NHL career according to the voters at hockeyfights.com - but he's worked to develop his all-around game.
"It has come leaps and bounds since my first year pro," Johnston said. "I started pro and I wasn't a great skater. I had to find an identity and play it game in and game out. I don't think I was very consistent and something I'm still working on is consistency. From Day 1 to where I'm at now, I'm very happy with the strides I've made."
Video: Morning Skate : Ross Johnston
While his far-side, post-and-in wrister on Monday night got the Islanders' bench fired up, those highlight-reel goals aren't the types of plays that Johnston has worked to add to his game. They're simpler, more subtle plays, like retrieving pucks, finishing hits, and improving his skating, which Trotz says is underrated.
"He gets up and down the ice way better than people think," Trotz said. "If you go once around the rink, you'd be surprised, he'd finish in the top third for sure, but he's such a big body that two of his strides are about 18 of mine. He covers some ground and he's got some length and he's got some hockey sense - a little bit of everything."
Last season wasn't an easy one for Johnston, who appeared in only 17 games with the Islanders, and dealt with the rigors of being out of the lineup for long stretches. He credits Luca Sbisa, who was also a regular scratch, for helping him stay focused, positive and ready for his calls into the lineup.
Instead of lamenting his first pro season under 50 games, Johnston used the time to work with the Islanders coaches to grow his game - and Trotz took notice of the growth. So did his teammates.
"The thing about Ross in his situation maybe the last two years, guys can kind of mope around, but he's got a smile on his face every day, no matter what position he's in," Barzal said. "He comes to work in the gym and on the ice after practice. You love to see a guy like that succeed. He's done a great job the last few games on my line."
Video: Morning Skate : Mat Barzal
Johnston's played 16 of the Isles' 30 games this season and is one shy of his total (17) from last season. The opportunity to play with Barzal and Bailey is a new development and one he's grateful for.
"It's a lot of fun," Johnston said. "Any time you can play and make an impact it's great, especially when the team has success as well. That being said, we talk about consistency, you have to bring it every game. I have to be predictable to those two guys, get them the puck back, give them the puck back and make plays, you'll be rewarded in the end because those guys are so skilled."
Trotz sees some benefits to having Johnston flank the two playmakers, especially adding a physical element to wear down other team's defensemen.
"He plays a 200-foot game, that's number one," Trotz said. "He gets on people and creates turnovers, which is great for a guy like Barzal or Bailey and plays a physical game. When Barzy is on the ice, there are some talented D on the ice as well and anytime you can continue to work over those talented D and lean on them a little bit and force them to work. That's a big body to move and a big body that's coming down on you. He's been pretty effective so far."
Barzal and Bailey concurred, citing his willingness to get in the dirty areas, draw attention in front of the net and create space for them on the ice. Bailey called Johnston a "presence" on the ice.
"He keeps getting more and more comfortable," Bailey said. "I think he's obviously a presence out there and gives Barzy and myself a lot of space. He's been going to the dirty areas, winning battles, getting pucks to us and going to the net hard. It's great to see him get rewarded, he deserves it."