During the contentious negotiations this past off-season, Ryan Johansen's agent Kurt Overhardt used players like Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos as comparables for his client. Many fans scoffed at the notion that Johansen had established himself as a top player in the NHL just yet.
This season has shown that last year was no fluke on the ice. Johansen is on pace to set career highs in goals and assists and had a "coming out party" of sorts during the All-Star weekend. He clearly is a #1 center and a building piece for the franchise (unless negotiations go south in a couple years). The front office said they wanted to see more than one season out of Joey before paying him a huge contract. Overhardt eventually agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal, but at the current rate he is going to be able to name his price for Johansen's next contract.
Even with Johansen proving himself offensively this season, the front office has been reluctant to heap praise on him publicly. They wanted a more well-rounded game, perhaps some leadership amidst the injuries as well. They thought there was more to his game and that he wasn't reaching his fullest potential. Todd Richards has not been afraid to bench his budding superstar for stretches in the third period this season.
That attitude has changed recently. Richards talks about Johansen becoming "Joe," the nickname sounding more like a man than the boyish "Joey" his teammates and friends call him. It may also be a nod to Joe Thornton, who Johansen idolized growing up and modeled his game after.
Joey is still just 22 years old. His game is still growing. He is the clear cut #1 centerman for the Jackets, and assuming Overhardt and the front office can strike a deal in a couple years, he'll be in Columbus for a very long time. He could be a decade-long "face of the franchise" much like Rick Nash was. So why has the organization been hesitant to treat him like a superstar? What "more" do they see in Johansen that he hasn't yet exhibited?
Is the one last piece Johansen is missing "leadership?" He has never really been seen as a leader or been noted as a "future captain" like Boone Jenner. The team has obviously been captain-less since Rick Nash was traded, and the alternates have mostly been Jack Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky, Mark Letestu, and/or Jared Boll for nearly three seasons now. It was once assumed Dubinsky or Johnson would take over the captaincy, but that hasn't happened.
Does Johansen need to be a captain to become the "complete player" the front office wants him to be? I don't think so. Plenty of guys wear an "A" and still lead their teams. Look at the All-Star rosters - there were a lot players who are captains and alternate captains for their home teams.
Andy wrote last year that maybe the Jackets want Johansen to be the next captain and are pushing him to get there. That said, there still aren't even rumors or hints that he might don an "A" let alone a "C" someday in Columbus. But is that the long game the front office is playing with Johansen? Are they trying to push him to be worthy of an "A" down the road?
Let's take a quick look at some of the elite players who are captains, many of whom are direct comparables to Johansen - John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Gabriel Landeskog, Henrik Zetterberg, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal, Jamie Benn, Mikko Koivu, Dustin Brown, Claude Giroux, David Backes, Henrik Sedin, and Alex Ovechkin. Quite a list right?
But how about those alternate captains? Corey Perry, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Jordan Staal, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Pavel Datsyuk, Anze Kopitar, Zach Parise, Max Pacioretty, Derek Stepan, Evgeni Malkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel Sedin, and whatever the heck the San Jose Sharks are doing. Johansen's idol Joe Thornton lost his "C" this season as San Jose entered the season with 23 captains.
Does every superstar have to become a captain or an alternate? No, of course not. But look at those two lists again. I left off defensemen and even some forwards (obviously) but your chances of finding a superstar in this league are much greater if you look to the leaders of the teams than if you look at the guys with no letter designation.
Is that the end game here, the long con? We will never know unless someone in the front office comes out and says just that. I doubt Johansen is pegged as the captain of the future based on what we have heard about Boone Jenner, but would it be reasonable for the front office to expect Joey to wear an "A" as a leader (not the leader) on a young team? Perhaps.
I think it is definitely something to keep an eye on the next couple of seasons, especially if you see the front office wait to fully prop up its superstar. They may be dangling one final carrot in front of Johansen in hopes of making him into a complete player. Incidentally, they could end up helping Overhardt's case if he brings similar comparables to the table in a couple years since many of the players he used in the last negotiations brought leadership qualities to their teams.
We don't quite see it now, but don't be surprised if you hear Johansen being talked about as a leader of the Blue Jackets in the near future. Then again, maybe his personality isn't suited for leadership and I will be totally wrong about this in 2017.