As we start looking inevitably towards next season, one of the big questions needs to be the next step in the development of Ryan Johansen. Finally playing his "natural" center position as the third line pivot with Derek Dorsett and Ryan Russell, he's actually been fairly respectable in that role, going 49% in the faceoff circle over the last seven games and only a -1 +/- rating, while collecting two more assists (impressive, considering he was asked to play against, among others, Jarome Iginla, the Sedins, and the Hawks.)
It's certainly not the high octane offensive role we wanted to see The Johan in, but it does show that he's continued to grow defensively and his ability to play the middle of the ice, rather than the wing, is coming along nicely.
It's also no coincidence that the team has started using Johansen in their promotions for this offseason - with the current face of the franchise looking increasingly on his way out the door, Johansen immediately becomes a "face of the future" to invest fans in both emotionally and financially, and a likely candidate for the "Young Stars" portion of next season's All Star Game.
But while that's great for the Blue Jackets, what's actually best for Ryan Johansen the hockey player?
Trying to predict the makeup of the team when we expect a number of major changes this offseason is difficult, at best, but it's worth considering that Johansen will suddenly have a few more development options next season, as he'll no longer be covered under the Major Junior agreements that prevented him from going to the AHL this season.
I'm seeing three major paths that might well depend on what the Jackets do at the draft table as much as on anything else.
Option 1: Welcome To The Show
Particularly if Rick Nash is traded, the team will need all the offensive creativity they can get. A tantalizing line of Vinny Prospal, Johansen, and Cam Atkinson has show up on the ice several times this season, especially during power play shifts. If that combination shows chemistry, it's a very promising possibility for a second line / second PP unit that can take advantage of the speed and passing abilities of Johansen and Aktinson with Vinny's usual nose for the net.
Keeping him in Columbus as a regular member of the top six would certainly give him more opportunities to find the back of the net, but it also comes with additional pressure. Fans have been patient with the Johan this year, but the fact that he's been expected to develop into a franchise player is going to become more and more on the minds of the same tea party-esque fans who are currently targeting the organization for grievances real and imagined. There are always going to be expectations for a player taken so high in the draft, but we need to make sure he is really up for handling them.
Option 2: Manage Expectations
Especially since Johansen hasn't set the world on fire offensively (though his linemates through much of the season haven't exactly had the pedigrees that say, Jeff Skinner or Jordan Eberle received in their rookie seasons), it might be best to let him work out over the summer and announce that the team will find the best fit for him in training camp. Depending on this offseason's moves, that may still be a top six role, it could be a continued third line role a-la Tyler Seguin, or it could even be a decision to give him seasoning in Springfield and let him work his way back up - something that seems to have been a good move for Cam Atkinson.
Honestly, I think this makes far more sense than promising (or pushing) a top six role. I have no doubt that Johansen WILL earn his place in the top six over the next two seasons, but it's worth allowing him to develop without pushing him to the point of overloading himself as he tries to exceed expectations that were set too high.
Option 3: Slow Cooker
If the team does make big changes up the middle this offseason, giving Johansen a chance to start as a top line player in Springfield may seem like a step backwards, but I'd argue it's a reasonable move. Allowing him to get used to being a top line performer with less public and media pressure offers him a chance to build confidence - I have no doubt that being held off the scoresheet (or worse, scratched all together) so often in the NHL has been a frustrating experience. Letting him play regularly and tearing up the back of the net for a few months would give him a good mental boost before bringing him back into the fold and slipping him into the lineup with the best chance to succeed.