Ryan Johansen’s Future in Columbus Uncertain

The Blue Jackets’ run at the playoffs yielded the finest stretch of play in the franchise history. Talented prospects, led by spark plugs Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson, are finally blossoming for the long suffering organization. Despite tremendous progress in the second half of 2013 not all of the young Jackets are firing on all cylinders. In fact, one former top five selection’s days playing home games at Nationwide may be numbered.

Less than three years ago Ryan Johansen was drafted to be the playmaking center that had eluded the Jackets since their inception. Last week Johansen, the fourth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, was a healthy scratch for the AHL Springfield Falcons. A new low point in what has been a roller coaster of a career to say the least.

Falcons coach Brad Larsen revealed John Davidson and company were on board with the scratch. Were they trying to motivate the 20-year-old or did he truly not play well enough to warrant an AHL roster spot? Regardless, the latest unfortunate development in the Ryan Johansen saga begs the question: is the former Winterhawks star on thin ice in Columbus?

Flashes of Talent

Back in February, Johansen was demoted to Springfield after a rough start with the big club. He shortly earned his way back and eventually became a key player in the Blue Jackets playoff run scoring the go-ahead goal in final minute of the club’s crucial April victory over the Sharks.

Ryan Johansen (Courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets)
Ryan Johansen (Courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets)

The demotion seemed to inspire Johansen, who ended the season with 12 points. It’s an improvement, but 12 points is far from living up to the expectations for a top five pick three years into his professional career. Johansen never fully recovered from -8 plus/minus that contributed to his return to the AHL, ending the NHL season at -7, but his two way game improved a great deal following his February stint with the Falcons.

There were moments where Johansen looked like a bonafide top six player, but not often enough to be considered a consistent threat in the offensive zone. When he’s on Johansen shows elite vision and finesse, but inconsistency and a habit of disappearing for shifts at a time has to concern the Jackets revamped front office who, by the way, had nothing to do with Johansen’s selection.

Earning His Place

Johansen is far from a lock to make the Blue Jackets in October. The Springfield Falcons were one of the best teams in the AHL in 2012-13 finishing second in the Eastern Conference. The Falcons season came to a disappointing end at the hands of the Jackets’ former affiliate the Syracuse Crunch. In the final game of the series, the Falcons facing a sweep and desperate for a win, coach Larsen opted to make Johansen a healthy scratch. Failing to make the AHL squad in their time of need does not bode well for Johansen’s future at the next level.

Ignoring obvious variables, Johansen ending the season as a scratch for Springfield means that of the 50 or so guys in the system trying to make Columbus’ roster more than 40 of them are ahead of Johansen going into the offseason. And that’s before you factor in the Blue Jackets’ three first round selections, potential free agents, and impending arrival of Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray.

Victim of Change

The culture is changing in Columbus. The NHL’s perennial bottomfeeder is suddenly brimming with potential led by some of the most respected decision makers in the game. The Blue Jackets rise was due mostly to the emergence of unexpected contributors, like Dalton Prout and Mark Letestu, who bought into Coach Todd Richards’ system and earned their ice time.

New CBJ President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson
New CBJ President of Hockey Operations, John Davidson

Meanwhile, prospects of (supposedly) higher pedigrees were fighting for playing time. Derick Brassard, another first round forward, and John Moore, the Jackets’ first pick the year before Johansen, were shipped to New York in favor of 31-year-old Marian Gaborik. Steve Mason, once a Calder Trophy winner, failed to keep up with Sergei Bobrovsky and was moved to the Flyers at the deadline.

John Davidson’s philosophy is a stark change from the Scott Howson regime. The new Jackets brass emphasizes earning your spot and has shown no hesitation to demote players that aren’t producing. It doesn’t matter how high you were drafted or how many zeros are on your paycheck, if you don’t perform you aren’t getting ice time.

Ryan Johansen’s potential is vast, but the results thus far are unacceptable for a franchise as desperate for scoring as Columbus. In his defense, the Jackets have been a mess since Johansen’s arrival and he’s yet to spend a full season in Columbus. Excuses, justified or not, will not help his case. Make no mistake, the time for Ryan Johansen to prove his play can live up to the hype is running short.

The investment the Jackets made in Johansen less than three years ago coupled with flashes of brilliance should be enough to keep him on the roster in 2013-14. It’s unlikely another team would give Columbus the value they’d demand to trade the erratic forward. At 20-years-old it would be absurd to give up on Johansen, but he’s got a long way to go to prove himself to a new regime that doesn’t owe him anything.

The 2013-14 season will be a crossroads for Johansen. If he fails to earn significant playing time or again falls to Springfield it may well be his last season in the Blue Jackets organization. On the other hand, Johansen could also be heading for a breakout season in 2013-14 that would solidify him a cornerstone for the young franchise to build on. The Jackets have the cap room, prospects, and draft picks to put surround him with the best talent he’s ever played with. That is, of course, if he can make the team.