I know what you’re thinking.
How could a fourth-liner, more like a 13th forward, be a team’s breakout player this season?
If you scroll through the Islanders’ lineup, a lot of the usual names had the seasons expected of them. Then their’s Ross Johnston.
Now, you won’t be looking at him for his overall stats — one goal and three assists — but it’s the improvement Johnston made as a hockey player and the contributions he made this year that stands out.
Johnston suited up in 32 games for the Isles before the season was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. That marked a career high from when he debuted two years prior.
The 26-year-old showed he was a lot more than just his ability to throw fisticuffs too. Don’t worry, he still showed he was more than capable of that. But Johnston’s skating and overall skill — how about that 18.8% shooting percentage — was ten times better than when he first came onto the NHL scene.
There was even a time this season where Johnston was rewarded the a chance to play on the first line with Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey. He didn’t take that opportunity for granted, scoring a very sweet goal in a 5-1 win in Tampa back in December.
Ross Johnston with an absolute snipe. Holy hell. pic.twitter.com/wXWbWELQ9e
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) December 10, 2019
Head coach Barry Trotz knew what he had in Johnston when he first joined the organization in 2018.
“You saw for a big man how well he moved,” Trotz said to The Athletic NYC’s Arthur Staple about Johnston earlier this year. “You saw his hands were pretty decent. So you saw there was something to work with. To the level of playing regularly? Yeah, I probably did. But I knew it would take some time.
And he credited credits Johnston keeping his nose to the grindstone and working hard even as a healthy scratch going back to last year.
“A lot of times when we were healthy, you had guys like Sbisa, Ross Johnston, Tommy Kuhnhackl and some others as scratches. And they competed and pushed each other every day,” he added. “Just to look at those guys, seeing how hard they were working and weren’t in the lineup, they had no reason to complain about ice time, about anything.”
That’s some high praise for a player you only throw in there when the team needs to flex its muscles. Johnston has become much more than for his team.
Where else did Johnston break out? How about exhibiting why he will be the perfect guy to replace heart-and-soul guy Matt Martin.
Martin, 30, is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. And Johnston made it clear he’s ready to assume the role. He plays a very similar style to Martin, has that undervalued skill as the latter, and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect his teammates.
There’s still no indication of whether the NHL will resume its season, but the future seems bright for Johnston.
The Isles are still only paying him $1 million for the next two seasons, and from the way he performed this year, he could very much be a bargain if he’s a regular starting next year.
Not bad for a kid from Prince Edward Island who, ever since he made it to the NHL, was only asked to fight.