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COLUMBUS — Ryan Johansen has a ritual the mornings before games at Nationwide Arena. He walks into an office down the hall from the Columbus Blue Jackets’ dressing room, and he chats with veteran NHL broadcaster Jeff Rimer, the team’s TV play-by-play man.
“I’ve told him 100 times if I’ve told him once,” Rimer said. “ ‘Do you realize how great of a hockey player you can be?’ ”
Johansen has not realized his potential, in more ways than one. But over NHL All-Star Weekend, he got a glimpse of what he can be. The whole hockey world did. Months after a bitter contract dispute with the Blue Jackets, he was thrust into a leading role. He played to the crowd and received lots of love in return.
Blue Jackets teammate Nick Foligno made Johansen the first pick in the fantasy draft Friday night.
Johansen hammed it up as he won the breakaway challenge Saturday night, taking off his Blue Jackets sweater to reveal an Ohio State football jersey, grabbing the son of a Blue Jackets trainer and carrying him to score a goal, gathering guys to form the ‘Flying V’ out of the “Mighty Ducks” movie.
Finally, Johansen had two goals and two assists in the All-Star Game on Sunday. He didn’t have the most goals, the most assists or the most points, and his team lost, 17-12. But the fans in the arena named him the most valuable player via a Twitter vote. He was their guy.
“It hasn’t hit me yet for sure,” said Johansen, as he sat behind a microphone under the bright lights, “and this is something I’ll remember for a very long time.”
Rick Nash used to be the face of the franchise. He spent nine seasons with the Blue Jackets and invested in the community, and he still calls Columbus home for part of the off-season. But he tired of losing and asked out. The Blue Jackets traded him to the New York Rangers, and when he comes back to Columbus now, he gets booed. He was booed all weekend.
Nash left a void. The Blue Jackets have a star goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. Johansen broke out last season with 33 goals and 63 points as the Blue Jackets made the playoffs for only the second time in their history. But the team has a blue-collar, team-oriented identity and no captain.
When Johansen’s agent pushed for a massive contract over the summer, it didn’t go over well with management. The sides traded barbs in the media. Johansen missed two-and-a-half weeks of training camp – eight exhibition games and 16 days of practice – before signing a three-year deal that would pay him salaries of $3 million, $3 million and $6 million. According to the Columbus Dispatch, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told him: “Get your butt over here and be ready to work.”
“I think it really bothered him,” Rimer said. “Obviously it was a long negotiation.”
There still seems to be tension between the team and the player, because the team sees a 6-foot-3, 223-pound center with high-end talent … and a laid-back personality. Although Johansen has 17 goals and 43 points in 45 games this season, management is not satisfied. He needs to forecheck better. He needs to backcheck better. He needs to skate hard every shift.
“Yes, we’re happy with his production,” Kekalainen told the Dispatch. “We just want him to improve, to get more complete. He has the potential to be one of the best in the league. To do that, he needs to play a more well-rounded game. We don’t just evaluate on points.”
The Blue Jackets seem unlikely to name Johansen captain. An NHL source said the league’s hockey operations department did not name Johansen a captain for the All-Star Game partly because it wouldn’t have been right after the contract battle and partly because he’s still an unfinished product at age 22. Wanting to name a skater from the host city, hockey ops chose Foligno instead.
But Rimer insists Johansen wanted to be in Columbus and the fences had been mended.
“I’ve seen the maturity, especially after signing that contract,” Rimer said. “He’s a different player.”
And Rimer thinks Johansen will be a better player after his All-Star Game experience. Rimer sat down with Johansen for a question-and-answer session at the Fan Fest in the convention center Sunday. Before an overflow crowd, Rimer asked Johansen if he had been watching the game’s best players – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane – and how they handled themselves.
“He said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Rimer said. “He feels a little more responsibility here now. He is the guy. He is the face of the franchise, he and Bobrovsky. Yeah, it’s a coming out party for him, but at the same time, it’s a hell of a learning experience for him. I think he’ll continue to grow. He’s got size. He’s a tremendous athlete. He’s strong on his skates, a great skater. And his shot. He’s got a terrific shot.”
That he does. Both his goals on Sunday were rockets.
“He’s already a superstar,” said Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, a player to whom Johansen is often compared. “I think he proved that out there. He’s a great player with a great release. When he gets that puck on his stick, he’s always dangerous.”
Johansen needs to use this as a springboard. Rimer isn’t the first one to ask Johansen if he realizes how great he can be.
“Yeah, Rims reminds me of that all the time, but Foligno, I think, was the first guy,” Johansen said. “He would pull me in the corners and really push me to be a better player. It’s nice to see that confidence from other players and belief in me and my abilities. This weekend is definitely a confidence booster.”
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