From an up-and-down year, to some big-game experience down the stretch, to being benched in the AHL playoffs, Ryan Johansen's 2012-2013 season was all over the map, but began and ended in the same place. With the NHL lockout, he was one of a handful of Blue Jackets' regulars to see extended time in Springfield, to the tune of 40 total games last season. He also found himself headed back to Springfield for a short stint midway through the truncated NHL season. Finally, he saw his season end in the Springfield press box as the Falcons were bounced from the Calder Cup playoffs.
What a strange trip it was.
Johansen comes into camp this year heading into his third NHL season. Too young for the AHL in 2011, he made the big club out of camp after having completely dominated the WHL in 2010-2011 to the tune of 120 points (53G, 67A) in 84 total games, including a playoff run that saw his Winterhawks eliminated in the league championship series, falling just short of a Memorial Cup appearance.
Despite having put on more and more muscle mass as he matured, 2011-2012 was a learning experience for the young center, as he found himself in and out of Scott Arniel's lineup, and all over the ice, spending a lot of time on the wing. He managed nine goals and 12 assists in 67 games on a bad, bad team.
With that experience under his belt and a pretty strong run in the AHL, when the lockout ended in January of 2013 many expected Johansen to come in and play at a much higher level in the NHL than he had in his rookie season. In some areas of his game, he certainly held his own. That said, the offensive production and the power game many expected from Johansen were still notably absent.
But, it was what happened early in the short season that may have been a turning point for the young forward. After starting the season with no goals and just two assists in the first 10 games, Johansen was sent back to the AHL in a move then-GM Scott Howson said was to allow Johansen to "find his game".
He wouldn't stay in Springfield for long, returning just 17 days later to Columbus when Jack Johnson was put on the IR list. Whether or not anyone can say he "found his game" there is a matter for debate. That said, over the final 30 games he played, Johansen took some solid steps forward.
For example, his defensive abilities were on display down the stretch when he was getting matched up with the likes of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews, and visibly frustrating the All Stars with his defensive play. He also had some solid offensive stretches, including a stretch to start March in which he notched points in five of six games. In 40 games in Columbus overall, he managed just five goals and seven assists, however. Consider the offense a work in progress.
That said, the spirit seemed willing. He showed flashes last season of being a shut-down center one way, and we all know the offensive pedigree he brings the other way. We even started to see some manifestations of that power game down the stretch, as Johansen appeared more willing and comfortable using his body to protect the puck and shield it from opponents.
"As a big guy, you're always working on puck protection," Johansen told me, "in the corners, and really all over the ice as a centerman, in your own zone battling with their big guys. It's a huge part of the game, and that's why every off-season all the players around the league are working out every day. You always want to get that extra edge of strength if you can."
And quite frankly, seeing him this past week, he looks massive. In standing next to him in a short-sleeve t-shirt, the change in his arms was easily noticeable. He looks more trim in the face, but much, much stronger through his midsection. Johansen said he put on seven or eight pounds of muscle this off-season, putting him at 6'4" and 222 pounds. "I feel good. I feel light and fast," he said.
But even with those positives after coming back to Columbus, there were also the lingering questions about his attitude, including the culminating event this past season where he was scratched from the Falcons' AHL final playoff series due to the coaching staff feeling like he wasn't invested completely. "It was tough," Johansen said. "Obviously, I wasn't playing the way I wanted to, and nobody likes watching their team in the stands. I'll definitely do everything I can for that not to happen again this year."
So it is that Johansen enters this season at a bit of a crossroads. He's coming into his third year. The offensive numbers he has displayed in juniors and in the AHL are yet to materialize in Columbus.
Coming into this season bigger and stronger, but also leaner, and with a tiny chip on his shoulder after the way his year ended last year, will we finally see the leap from Johansen? He certainly has the tools, and the culture of the Jackets should lead him to success. And, he seems to know that he's running out of chances to step up: "[The expectations are] a bit more, I think," he said. "There's definitely going to be a bigger role put out there for me, and I'm ready for it. This is what I've been working for, trying to get this opportunity to be a big player for this team. I just have to work for that chance to do it, and make the most of it when I get it."
Therein lies the question: can Johansen show up every night, go all-out every shift, and as pitchers are so often told in baseball, "trust his stuff"? We shall see. When asked if this year's camp was going to be different for him, Johansen responded: "[It's a] little different. You always have the same approach and goals. If they don't turn out, you make new goals. For myself, I want to be a top line player, an impact player on our team, and [be] one of those difference-makers every night. I'm looking forward to the opportunities ahead to start the season."
While that all sounds well and good, one thing remains clear, however: for Johansen, time is starting to run out for him to take that next step. With just 33 points in 107 career NHL games, his numbers pale in comparison to some of his best draft contemporaries. Consider Taylor Hall's 145 points in 171 games, or Jeff Skinner's 131 points in 188 games, or Tyler Seguin's 121 points in 203 games.
If Johansen ever wants to be included in those ranks from that draft, the time is now.