For the 2010 4th overall pick, the first 9 games of the season have been an unforgettable experience, no matter what happens next.
"It's been pretty tremendous - it's been tough lately with how the games have been going, but there's a lot of great guys on this team who know what it takes to get to that level and win hockey games."
That said, when asked about the way the team has been playing, he doesn't seem to think of himself as going home.
"Every game now is a battle. We're just going to keep grinding, clawing away and doing everything we can to put ourselves in a situation to win."
If that's truly the case, then it seems likely that Ryan Johansen will find himself a nice place to stay sooner than later, but it's worth taking a look at some of the factors the team has on their plate.
A Look At The Numbers
In his first four games, playing as a center with "grinder" wings, Johansen failed to make an impact on the scoresheet, and had his icetime heavily restricted. In the faceoff circle, he had flashes of effectiveness, even greatness (winning 67% of his draws vs. Colorado) and others of wretched failure (winning 20% of his draws against Dallas).
At that pace, many suspected he'd be headed to Portland fairly quickly, but instead Scott Arniel shook up the lines, moving Johansen to Antoine Vermette's wing, and saw an immediate impact, registering his first NHL point and starting a run of four points (including 2 game winning goals and another assist) in the past 5 games.
Despite that, his ice time has still been carefully monitored - the greatest appearance was for 25 shifts and 17 minutes vs. Detroit - and Scott Arniel was perhaps almost too willing to sit the rookie after a mistake against Buffalo lead to a scoring play for the Sabres. He's also seen little to no PP time, averaging less than a minute per game, despite being an overall positive scoring chance driver with the man advantage, and has never taken a shift on the PK.
Looking at his overall even strength performance in our scoring chance tracking, Johansen has generated a total of 28 scoring chances for the Jackets, and been on ice for 26 chances against. The number is badly skewed, however, by his first three games on the fourth line where he had a total of 3 chances for and 8 chances against.
Since the first of two games in Detroit, it would appear that something "clicked" for Johansen, who started using his speed and handling abilities more effectively, especially as he was given more talented linemates to work off of, registering an average of ~5 chances per game and keeping his negative numbers down to two against.
In the +/- department, Johansen has also been a fairly even keeled player, recording a clean sheet or +1 in 7 of his starts, and only two negative games (a -1 in both Buffalo and Chicago), for an overall +2 rating.
So, if he keeps improving, he isn't hurting us in our own end, and he seems to have bought into the team, why send him back?
With the team committing to spend to the cap, the recent rash of injuries has been a major source of headaches as they attempt to keep a balanced budget. As a first round top 4 draft pick, the Johan comes with a hefty pricetag - a base NHL salary of $900,000 and performance / signing bonuses worth another $1.165 million, and a total cap hit of $1.95 million for the season.
For that price, the team could call up a slew of their AHL level prospects (Cam Atkinson and Tomas Kubalik could both fit in for less than Johansen's cap hit, with room to squeeze in Dane Byers or Ryan Russell in a pinch), or potentially look to fill holes in their defensive arrangement with a relatively inexpensive NHL journeyman.
With a 2-9-1 start, the Jackets are well below the perfomance expected of them, in no small part because of major injuries at every position. With the ability to potentially send Johansen down, Scott Howson has to be looking at the situation and wondering if this is, potentially, a lost season. Is it worth burning a year of an entry level contract, particularly if Johansen's talents continue to develop, and expose him to restricted free agency in 2014? By himself it doesn't seem that bad, but consider that Johansen would be looking for a raise at the same time as Derick Brassard, Steve Mason, and John Moore. Depending on the state of the franchise that is a LOT of money that could suddenly be needing to go a lot of places. A good example would be the situation currently faced by Nashville, with three key players all in UFA or RFA status.
With the current roster as constructed, Marc Methot and Antoine Vermette would be up for free agency in 2015, but you would expect that the team would be able to focus more carefully on Johansen at that point.
Is it a major concern in this decision? I doubt it, but for a team pushing the cap hard, I'm sure it's somewhere on the radar.
It's also worth nothing that the team has repeatedly stated that all decisions will look at Johansen's proper development - attempting to ward off the repeated criticism that the Jackets have not allowed promising players to develop properly. But that complaint is a bit of a false argument when you consider the players usually given as examples of being rushed.
Rostislav Klesla, the team's first overall draft pick, is still a productive NHL defenseman at this point, logging an average of 20 minutes a night for the Coyotes. Rick Nash is, well, Rick Nash. Pascal Leclaire is out of the NHL at this point, but that was a consequence of repeated injuries (some of them requiring an insane level of bad luck) than a poor professional development. Nikolay Zherdev is in the KHL, but that is a story more of ego, money, and cultural clashes than "rushing".
Gilbert Brule is a frequent poster child for being "rushed", but it's become increasingly clear that the former WHL star simply does not posses the tools to be an offensive dynamo in the NHL, and that his skillset as a defensive forward was not strong enough to secure a permanent home. That, if anything, is more a condemnation of the team's amateur scouting. The jury is still out on Derick Brassard in a similar fashion, but he's shown that he can be a solid second line NHL forward.
In the Scott Howson era, three of the team's four first round picks played a full season of Junior hockey after their draft selection (including Johansen), and the exception (Nikita Filatov) still spent the majority of his first pro season in the AHL.
The best comparison is likely 2007 first rounder Jakub Voracek, though he did not struggle with changing positions during his 9 game audition in 2008-2009 (eventually leading to a full season at the NHL level). In his first six games on the wing, Voracek had the same amount of goals, 1 less assist, and averaged ~10 minutes of ice time a night compared to Johansen's 13 (a number likely to be higher had he not been sat down in Buffalo).
Johansen has shown he has the tools to be an NHL caliber player, the ability to produce with the assistance of quality linemates, and matching the perfomance of a similar rookie player for the club in a similar situation.
I've tried to find serious reasons to send him down. The only I can think of, as horrible as it is, is if the team made the decision to dump everything after such a horrible start and try to tank for a lottery pick, and didn't want Johansen exposed to what would likely be a rather nasty locker room environment.
But when you've already dug the hole, and you have a talented young lad willing to help dig your way out of it, it makes far more sense to me to hand him a shovel than tell him to wait another year.