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Ryan Johansen: Is It Time?

He has good on-ice vision and also angles well on the forecheck. He has the intelligence to play power-play as well as penalty kill. He can be shifty and has the ability to beat a defenseman one-on-one. Once he fills out and gains more strength he could turn raw talent into a valuable center at both ends of rink. He has displayed nice playmaking capabilities and this should continue at the next level.

B.J. MacDonald, NHL Central Scouting, 2010

When we originally profiled Ryan Johansen, he seemed to be a bit of a long shot. While his skill and ability were obvious, many thought that Scott Howson would be looking to solidify his blue line prospects, not start addressing the team’s depth down the middle.

After a rookie season in the WHL where he was the second highest scoring player on the Portland Winterhawks (and their leading playoff scorer), he put in a respectable showing in both the Jackets’ prospect camp and training camp before returning to Portland, and even after a bit of a slow start, he still came around to lead the Hawks back to the WHL finals with 92 points (including 40 goals) in 63 regular season games, and then delivering 28 points in 21 playoff games as he attempted to push the Winterhawks into the Memorial Cup.

Though he fell just short of that goal, there’s no shame in his performance, and the general consensus is that while Johansen is still a year too young to play in the AHL, there’s really nothing more for him to learn in Portland. Much like draft classmates Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner, it may be time for him to join the ranks of the NHL.

Even his coach in Portland, Mike Johnston, has told the Dispatch that he does not expect Johansen to return.

But there are reasons that Columbus may be cautious about putting him into the lineup next year, and it’s worth looking at both sides of the coin before we try to call it in the air.

He has the size and skill to go along with great playmaking abilities. He has strong offensive skills and can prove to an un-hittable target at times when he controls the puck. Johansen has a very good frame and still has lots of room to build on it, add to this the fact that Johansen can be very crafty with the puck and really challenge opposing defenders to contain him and you begin to see his NHL appeal.

International Scouting Services

The Challenges:

One of the most difficult aspects of a Junior Hockey player transitioning to the NHL is simply the physical shift of playing against opponents from your age group (or perhaps a year or two over), to playing against men who have fully developed, physically, and bring a wealth of experience.

To his credit, Johansen has worked hard this season to build himself up, and mother nature has given him a helping hand, allowing him to add another inch or so in height and almost 18 pounds onto the already impressive 6’2 191 lb. frame that first pulled on a Blue Jackets‘ sweater last June.

He’ll be working in Columbus with several of his teammates (and S&C coach Kevin Collins), but going from playing a 68 game season against your peers to 82 vs older, stronger, and more experienced opponents is going to demand a great deal from him, and there’s only so much that an off season regimen will do.

The next issue is one that Johansen admitted to himself in an unexpected encounter with Tom from The Dark Blue Jacket during training camp last season: The speed of the game is an entirely new level.

Not only will he need skate faster and harder than before (though comments from Portland are encouraging that he’s been working to improve his explosiveness and the speed off the first step), but he’ll need to have even greater anticipation and a need to make plays. Though he only saw three games in the 2010 pre-season, it was enough for him to understand how difficult it can be to make plays at NHL speed, when it becomes as much about reactions and instincts as it is any conscious planning.

That said, one of his strongest skills has been his on ice vision, and his performance this year has only strengthened it, giving him the ability to read plays with exceptional skill at the WHL level, and likely putting him in position where he’s “keeping up” with the NHL, rather than feeling like he’s constantly throwing the puck into space and hoping that someone in the right color jersey will be there to collect it.

Even if (and these are big Ifs), Ryan can demonstrate to Scott Arniel and the coaching staff that he has filled himself out to meet the demands of his first NHL season, and developed his timing and anticipation to NHL levels, there’s still another challenge waiting for him: Where to fit him into the lineup.

As of today, here’s the forwards depth chart for the Blue Jackets:

Nash – Brassard – Huselius
Umberger – Vermette – Voracek
Calvert – Pahlsson – Dorsett
Boll – MacKenzie – Kubalik
Atkinson – Johansen- Mayorov
Gabriel – Filatov?

Now, it can certainly be argued that Filatov, in terms of pure talent, might be higher on this list. It also doesn’t cover potential returning RFA or UFAs like Tomas Kana, Kyle Wilson or Scottie Upshall, all of whom could potentially be re-signed. I’ll even say that, yes, with the need to shake up aspects of the team, some of the players on that chart could even be moved before training camp as part of rebuilding the defense and helping this team go from also-ran to contender.

But the fact remains that to keep Ryan Johansen in the NHL, he’s going to need to outplay at least six other guys currently on the roster. It helps that he’s a center, the Jackets’ weakest position, depth wise – it’s entirely possible that he could be kept in a rotation with Derek MacKenzie, allowing him to start on the wing of the fourth line, perhaps, and getting some experience coming in to take faceoffs as needed, then moving more consistently to the middle if he continues to develop as expected. But also consider that even if the team tries to “ease” him into NHL action with 8-10 minutes a night (and perhaps some power play time), there will be tradeoffs. Can the PK work as a unit with one less potential skater? Will he be able to play in the final minutes of a tight game, or would he be watching from the bench? His potential is enormous, but how much will he get to use it? How will he be able to push himself?

In short – will there be a proper opportunity for Ryan to grow?

Columbus has been guilty again and again of having to “rush” prospects because there was not enough depth, or because they tried to put too much, too early, on a young player, and then watched him crumple under the stress. Now, finally, they have depth, and the luxury of being able to decide what is really best for both the player and the team. While I agree that playing 18 minutes a night in Portland isn’t going to challenge him the same way that 10 minutes in the NHL might, it’s also worth asking how much he’ll really learn if his ice time is being carefully cherry picked, and he’s seeing more skating opportunities in the practice rink than in game action.

He has an impressive reach, and combines it with deceptive speed to make plays in both the offensive and defensive ends. Johansen has stepped up as a quiet leader for the Winterhawks

The Scouting Report

The Benefits:

On the other side of the coin, one has to consider the potential (and the positives) that Johansen brings. While the NHL isn’t generally a teenager’s game, there’s an increasingly large group who have demonstrated that a highly talented, well prepared player can make the jump from Major Junior hockey to the NHL.

If there is one thing that Ryan Johansen has in spades, it is talent and motivation.

Having spent his draft year rocketing up the board, he returned to the WHL and answered every concern about a perceived “slow start” or his numbers being too reliant on draft year teammates Nino Niederreiter and Brad Ross, following his pre-season in Columbus by carving his way to #7 in WHL scoring – and doing so in 10 less games than the six players above him on that list. His dominant performance in the WHL playoffs was a statement that he was there to make an impact, and showed how he’d stepped up his game when the pressure was on.

In international play, Johansen was similarly strong, contributing three goals and six assists in 7 games at the 2011 WJC, third in team scoring behind LA Kings standout prospect Brayden Schenn (also expected to make the leap to the NHL next season) and Predators defensive standout Ryan Ellis.

This is a young man that responds to pressure by turning up his own efforts, and that’s a gift that can’t be undervalued.

Should he make the leap to the NHL, if he continues to flourish, it’s likely we’ll see him moving up in the lineup. Though I would say that putting him on top line duty with Rick Nash, though a tantalizing image, is a bit premature, I could easily see him contributing on the second power play unit with R.J. Umberger and Jakub Voracek, or making good use of time with Matt Calvert to allow the speedy winger to get to the net and go for rebounds off of Johansen’s delivery.

In fact, Calvert could be an ideal linemate for Johansen as he develops – not only because of his complimentary speed and skating ability (their abilities to hustle to the puck and force / exploit turnovers together could be an explosive combination), but for Johansen’s confidence. Having gone through the experience of returning to Juniors, then the AHL before rising into the NHL as a rookie, Calvert has a lot of fresh experience that he can use to make suggestions or help with his teammate’s adjustment, as his memories of the transition are still fresh. I wouldn’t suggest that Johansen would feel uncomfortable asking for help (or taking advice), but I have no doubt that it’s easier to talk to someone in your own peer group who is about your age.

The only alternative available, if Johansen is deemed on the cusp, but not quite ready, is returning to Portland. While playing time would not be a question, one wonders if he would be able to keep sharpening his edge. While I’m sure Team Canada would love to have him available for the 2012 WJC tournament, will he continue to push himself against what promises to be a lower tier of competition against the rest of the WHL? Would the knowledge that he wasn’t quite ready for Columbus be enough to keep his fires burning? As a 1992 birthday, he’ll be one of the older age group, should he return, and while I have no doubt that his continued edge in size and physical development would give him the potential to create some exceptional numbers, do we care if he re-writes Portland’s record books when he could be making an impact in the NHL on a level similar to Calvert, or even Jake Voracek in his rookie campaign?

Perhaps the best of both worlds will be, if he earns the opportunity, to keep him in Columbus for the first few games of the regular season, and make the decision about keeping him in Columbus or returning him to Portland before he hits the 10 game “limit” that would activate the first year of his NHL contract.

I’ve no doubt that Ryan Johansen will be an NHL player. The talent is there, the skill is there, the speed appears to be there. Anyone who saw him at prospects camp or training camp could see that he got more comfortable working with his new teammates every time he stepped onto the ice, and while he’s yet to register a point in the NHL,  I can’t help but think that his ability to keep a clean +/- rating against Pittsburgh and Washington (on the road, no less), was a good sign for his defensive game, as well. There are no glaring weaknesses or obvious flaws – merely a player who needs to have the chance to grow and adjust, and fill out his game as a natural result of maturing.

Is it Johansen’s time? It’s impossible to judge without seeing him on the ice again – but even as my head lines up the various reasons why it will be a difficult challenge for him, my heart can’t bring itself to count him out.

Do you think that Ryan Johansen will play in the NHL in the 2011-2012 season?

Yes – Full season 87
Yes – 10 or less games 40
No 3