Is Ryan Johansen Making "The Leap"?

We've talked for the past two years about Ryan Johansen and his ceiling. At age 21, we may finally be seeing Johansen develop into the #1 center we were all hoping for in 2010.

For many years, Blue Jackets fans lamented about not having that true #1 center. I remember as the Jackets were about to pick at #4 in the 2010 draft that I assumed they would be taking Cam Fowler or maybe Brandon Gormley: the two "best" defensemen left on the board at that point. In the interest of full disclosure, I was pulling for Fowler at the time. Then, one of the TSN guys remarked that maybe the pick was going to be Ryan Johansen.

I remember being a bit disappointed at the time. Johansen wasn't expected to go that high. He finished as Central Scouting's 10th best NA skater prior to the draft, well behind the two defensemen mentioned above. He had solid stats on a very good Portland Winterhawks team (69 points in 71 games) playing between two high draft picks in Nino Niederreiter and Brad Ross, but I don't remember thinking he was going to be end up being a #1 center when he was drafted. The big knock was that he was very raw offensively, and that he wasn't big enough or physical enough.

Fast forward three years. To say that Johansen isn't "big" enough anymore is a thing of the past, as he's pushing 220 pounds--roughly 30 pounds more than his draft weight. He's learned to use his body in a physical way to shield the puck and to win battles. He always had the skating and the stick-work to go with the vision. It was just going to be a waiting game to see if he could develop the frame--and the drive to use it--to be that Joe Thornton type of center that Johansen has said he wants to be.

After a three-point night on Saturday, I decided to look at some deeper numbers to see how close we might be getting to having that true, "#1 center" on this roster in the person of Johansen. So, how's he doing?

***First and foremost, I'm going to offer the following disclaimer: I'm not the most inclined to get into the heavy minutiae of advanced stats. I tend to look only at two main stat areas via Corsi as it applies to quality of competition, and zone starts/finishes. This tells me two big things: what kind of competition a player is playing against, and how he is being used vs. how well he is succeeding in that role. Goal numbers are one thing, but they mean something completely different for two guys with different QualCom and Zone Start numbers, in my opinion. Also of note, the BTN stats as of this writing have not been updated to reflect Saturday's game, so take that with a grain of salt. They are marked with an asterisk below, and I will update them here as soon as they're updated there. All of that having been said, I'm more than willing to listen to arguments in the comments about what I may be overlooking or mis-using. OK, back to the "analysis".***

Well, to my own subjective eyeball test, he's doing very well. Just watching him with the puck, you can see he's more willing--and able--to use his growing strength and size to keep people off of him and thus off the puck. He always had the vision on the ice, but he wasn't always able to use it because he couldn't possess the puck. He also continues to get better and better in the faceoff circle.

To his credit, last season he was able to develop his defensive game to the NHL level, but his offensive numbers didn't follow: just five goals and seven assists in 40 games, or .125 goals per game, .3 points per game. This was down from his rookie numbers of .134 goals per game and .313 points per game. To be fair, his offensive zone starts also went down in that second season (from 53% to 50.6%). However, his even strength G/60 (goals scored per 60 minutes) did jump up in his second year, moving from 0.49 to 0.57. That said, his even strength P/60 (points scored per 60 minutes) dropped from 1.39 to 1.26. (Note: I'm comparing only EV numbers, as Johansen has no PPGs and just three PPA combined in the last two seasons.)

But, he was facing tougher competition in his second year, as his even strength Corsi Quality of Competition number jumped from .448 his rookie season to .896 in his sophomore campaign. His EV Relative Corsi Quality of Competition number jumped from -.371 his rookie year to .744 in his second year. So, really, in his defense, he was asked to play against much tougher competition--and with more "grinder" linemates--which limited his offensive chances (reflected in his EV on-ice Corsi number, which dropped from .57 in his rookie year to -11.36 his second year). In spite of those obstacles, in reality his offensive numbers per game didn't drop by a huge margin at all. Consider, also, that his EV ice time/60 jumped from 10.94 to 13.08.

Finally, Johansen was asked to play the true center's role, which showed in the faceoff circle. He only won 45.1% of his faceoffs his rookie season (in 215 chances), and that number jumped to 51.4% in his second season while his chances increased by almost 250%: he had 529 chances last season.

What does all of that mean? Well, it confirms what we suspected last season: Johansen was given a much larger role in his second season, and that role was as much more of a "defensive" player than in not only his rookie year, but in juniors as well. And, he largely succeeded in that role, as he improved his defense by a large chunk while basically maintaining his per-game rookie offensive numbers. Decent, to be sure.

All of that having been said, to say that the expectations for Johansen this season were high would be an understatement. Fans and management were no doubt happy with the defensive work done by Johansen in that second season, but everyone--including Johansen himself--wanted to start seeing the game-changing, impact-player numbers that he put up in juniors and in the AHL as a top-line center: in 168 total games in the WHL (including playoffs), Johansen had 84 goals (.5 goals per game) and 207 points (1.23 points per game); in 45 AHL games last year during the lockout, his demotion, and playoffs, Johansen poured in 17 goals (.378 goals per game) and 34 points (.756 points per game).

So, again we ask: how's he doing? Let's take a look at the raw numbers. First and foremost, he's now one assist away from matching his ENTIRE offensive output in the NHL from last season: he has five goals and six assists in 16 games (.313 goals per game, .688 points per game). These per-game numbers look close to his AHL numbers from last season, and blow away his first two seasons in the NHL, albeit in a much smaller sample size. But, those numbers alone don't tell the entire story.

Most indicative of his improvement are his EV points/60 numbers, which are pretty awesome thus far: 1.31 G/60 (second--barely--on the team only to Marian Gaborik) and 2.37 P/60 (again, second only to Gaborik). Finally, Johansen's shooting percentage has more than doubled from last season, from 6.0% to 12.8% so far (again, a small sample size, but still). I don't need to tell you, that's a pretty awesome jump thus far into the season.

But, it's not just that simple. We need to ask my other, "advanced stats" questions: how is he being used, and who is he playing against?

First and foremost, his EV ice time number is up from 13.08 TOI/60 to 14.19 thus far. But, what about on Special Teams? This is one of the areas that we're not only seeing development, but more faith from the coaching staff as well. Last season, Johansen's TOI/60 on the Power Play was 2.15, and his number on the PK was a slim 0.10. This season thus far, both numbers are up: his PP number is up to 2.58 (he has two assists on the PP), and his PK number is up to 0.90. So, in short, Johansen is literally getting more ice time in all three phases of the game. That shows trust from the coaches.

But, now the bigger question: have the "defensive" numbers changed at all? To me, that's the biggest indicator as to whether or not Johansen is actually developing as we hope he is: is the new-found offensive spike coming at the cost of his solid defensive play from last season?

At first glance, not so much. His offensive zone start number has actually gone down, meaning he's taking more defensive zone faceoffs this year than last year. And, it's a pretty decent drop: at even strength, it's down from 50.6% last year to 45.4% so far this year*. By being asked to take more defensive zone faceoffs, the team would need him to be good in the faceoff circle, as well. And, not only has he been good, but he's made a pretty solid improvement thus far: his number has jumped to 53.64% in the faceoff circle in a team-leading 261 chances. Tougher starts, more draws, better FO winning percentage. Check, check, and check.

As important as the zone starts are the zone finishes (i.e., where is the puck/team when his shift ends?). Last season, he finished 51.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone, which was higher than his zone starts number; that's good. This season? Despite the huge percentage drop in his zone starts, he's still finishing more of his shifts in the offensive zone (48.3%*), and the percentage increase (2.9%) is much higher than it was last season (1.1%). Another check in the "good" column.

Finally, one would assume that, given those zone start numbers, Johansen is facing some pretty tough competition at even strength... and one would be right. So far, his Corsi Quality of Competition number is .677*, which is second on the club only to Michael Chaput, who was played 10 fewer games than Johansen. Accordingly, Johansen's Relative Corsi Quality of Competition number is 2.146*, which is BY FAR the best for forwards on the team (and second only to Fedor Tyutin overall): Johansen is the only forward above two on the entire squad. And, his On Ice Corsi (which was incredibly awful last year at -11.36) has jumped back up to 1.16*. This also factors in who he's playing with, considering he's (thankfully) spending less time with pure grinders than last year, but it also reflects a better generation of shots (and thus, hopefully, "offense") against the toughest competition.

All of that is, in a word, GOOD.

So, let's review, in handy chart format, so that we can track the VERY REAL improvement in all aspects of Johansen's game. Here's the legend (all numbers represent Even Strength):

TOI/60 - Minutes of Ice Time Per Game
Corsi Rel QoC - Relative Corsi Quality of Competition: Average Relative Corsi of opposing players, weighted by head-to-head ice time.
Corsi QoC - Corsi Quality of Competition: Average Corsi of opposing players, weighted by head-to-head ice time.
Corsi On - On-Ice Corsi: On-Ice Shot Differential (goals + saves + missed shots + blocks). This is expressed as a rate stat per 60 minutes.
Off Zone Start % - Zone Start - Offensive %: Offensive Zone Start % = Offensive Zone Starts / (Offensive Zone Starts + Defensive Zone Starts). Records where a player started his shift.
Off Zone Finish % - Zone Finish - Offensive %: Offensive Zone Finish % = Offensive Zone Finishes / (Offensive Zone Finishes + Defensive Zone Finishes). Records where a player finished his shift.
G/60 - Goals Scored per 60 Minutes
P/60 - Points per 60 Minutes

Season '11-'12 '12-'13 '13-'14
TOI/60 10.94 13.08 14.19
Corsi Rel QoC* -0.371 0.744 2.146
Corsi QoC* 0.448 0.896 0.677
Corsi On* 0.57 -11.36 1.16
Off Zone Start %* 53.0 50.6 45.4
Off Zone Finish %* 51.9 51.7 48.3
FO% 45.1 51.4 53.6
G/60 0.49 0.57 1.31
P/60 1.39 1.26 2.37

As I said above, at the moment he was drafted, I remember being a bit disappointed. To say I am disappointed now would be the furthest thing from the truth. To my eyes, Johansen has been the most consistent forward on this team through 16 games, and the jump in his offensive game while not sacrificing the defense the club came to depend on last season has been nothing short of inspiring. The only real place for more marked improvement is on the Power Play for Johansen, and it should be noted that the entire team has struggled for sustained success there.

The trick, of course, is consistency and longevity. To say I'm encouraged by Johansen's start--despite the team's overall struggles--would be an understatement. But, we must remember, it's been just 16 games. There's room for improvement, but there's also, of course, the threat of regression. For example, can Johansen--who has truly sniped some sweet goals thus far--keep his shooting percentage as high as it is right now? We'll have to wait and see.

That said, to see the blossoming of his offensive game--along with getting some chances to play with more offensive-minded linemates--that has come along with his continued consistency on defense (and, one could argue, in tougher situations than even last year) is certainly a very positive sign. For example, if Johansen plays a full 82-game season at his current pace, he'll turn in a 25-goal, 56-point season, all while improving his faceoffs, taking more defensive zone draws, and continuing to see some of the stiffest competition on the team.

That may not be bonafide "#1 center" production in a vacuum, but it would be a pretty gigantic Leap forward and a pretty good foretaste of what's to come as he continues to mature into the NHL.

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