A lot has been made of Columbus Blue Jackets rookie Ryan Johansen being benched for a handful of games down the stretch. Much has also been made of him playing on the bottom six of the roster while he is in the lineup. A quick comparison could easily be made for Johansen and Richards versus Derick Brassard under former coach Scott Arniel. I thought it would be a good opportunity to really consider what factors are coming into play.
To begin, let me point out that I was strongly against the under utilization of Brassard early in the season. While Brass was left gasping for air on the fourth line, the playmaking center made good use of his time there learning to play a more physical role and becoming a more complete player. Despite countless games full of effort, he was left watching from the press box. This is where I believe he and Johansen stand apart.
The Johan does not appear to be pouring out effort during his games on the ice. When I think about the top rookies in the league, or even watch the play of a rookie like Cam Atkinson, I watch a feverish style of hockey with great speed and effort. I recognize that Johansen and Atkinson have different traits, with Atkinson being the smaller, speedier of the two, but that should not justify the level of difference as I have seen. In fact, there have been a number of games this year where Johansen has played with a great deal of tenacity and speed, only to seemingly fall back on a similarly sluggish style of play games later. I can also cite his time with Team Canada in the U20 World Junior Championship or a number of his highlights from his junior days with Portland, where he shows a great deal of speed and tenacity on and off the puck.
Unfortunately I can't provide video examples of his mediocre play this season because this type of hockey isn't something that gets recorded and posted on youtube or NHL.com, but I can offer an explanation. Players who are standing relatively straight up, constantly have one hand on their stick, and essentially push off with one skate rather than churning (or using both legs actively) to build up speed can fall into this category pretty quickly. This style of play often leaves players in empty ice, and really only ends up leaving the skater to watch the game from the ice rather than being involved. It is a style of play that you will almost never see a limited talent player like Derek Dorsett or Derek MacKenzie play. They are both engaged in the play or fighting to better themselves positionally for a possible change in the play, and I personally don't often see them standing upright while the play is live.
It is based on a lot of what I have seen that I think it makes sense why Richards is singling out Johansen. He is a player that should be making a difference on the ice, considering his high praise from hockey analysts as being one of the top tier prospects in the league. He is also a bigger player, and a guy who should be able to function in a bottom six role better than a player like Brassard. What he appears to lack right now, is the tenacity and effort that it takes to breach the top six on a roster that has a number of vacancies. He is not a player that should be playing out the string, he is a player who needs to develop, and if he is not playing hard enough in practice or in games, he should be shown that it won't be tolerated.
With that said, I am not impressed that Johansen is taking the brunt of the logic regarding effort. He is one of a handful of players who have underachieved and underperformed this season, and I think it's time to start making examples throughout the roster, not just with the top rookie. While I think it is very good for Johansen's development to let him know that his current output is not going to be accepted, I think it is important to extend that logic to the rest of the team. How much of a shock would it be to see a player like Umberger sit a game? At this point in the season, wins are about pride more than anything, but where is the pride if all eighteen skaters on the ice aren't playing to their full capacity?
I say keep it up with Johansen, and make him work hard for his ice time, but do that to every player on the roster. Put away salary and prestige, and force every player to work for their ice time.
Carry the Flag.