SUNRISE, Fla. — Before the Colorado Avalanche went searching for an end to a three-game losing skid Saturday night in South Florida, Ryan Johansen spoke at length about his own personal quest to salvage what has been a frustrating season to date.
Neither the Avs nor their first-year veteran center found the answers they were looking for at Amerant Arena. It was a long night for the entire team, with plenty of blame to go around in a 4-0 loss to the Florida Panthers.
It was also another long night for Johansen, who got stuck on the ice without a stick for one of the most dominant shifts another team has had against the Avs this season, lost his man on a rebound for Florida’s third goal and took multiple shifts during the third period on the fourth line.
“I had a pretty good start (to the season), it felt like,” Johansen said Saturday morning. “The last little while here, just haven’t been able to be as effective as I’d like to be. Just trying to go day by day now and get my rhythm going and get to a spot where I’m impacting games a lot more.”
“Just need to stay the course and not try to lose sleep over it. I’m just keeping my work boots on trying to go from here.”
The Avs added Johansen during the offseason with the hope that he would be the club’s solution as the No. 2 center behind Nathan MacKinnon. He had nine goals in the first 21 games, including a pair Nov. 27 in a win against Tampa Bay at Ball Arena.
But his ice time was already dwindling at that point. Johansen averaged 16:14 per game in the first 15 games of the season. He hasn’t played 16 minutes in any of the 38 games since.
Part of it was being replaced on the first power-play unit by Jonathan Drouin, and how much the Avs lean on PP1. Part of it was an injury to Artturi Lehkonen, which led to a turnstile of wings playing next to Johansen.
The biggest issue is that Avs coach Jared Bednar hasn’t trusted him to play the minutes a typical No. 2 center would get most nights. Ross Colton’s line, often with Miles Wood and Logan O’Connor, has been more consistently effective and has regularly played more than whoever Johansen and his wings were.
“He’ll be physically involved, engaged with his skating and physicality, trying to make an impact on every shift,” Bednar said, when asked what a good night has looked like for Johansen when he’s had them. “The consistency in his game and the hunger in his game has to be there in order for his tools and skills to show up.”
The production has not been there. Johansen has two goals and eight points in the past 32 games since that game against the Lightning. While the team’s on-ice shooting percentage is the second-lowest among the forwards when Johansen is on the ice, the rest of the underlying numbers wouldn’t support an argument that the lack of production has been driven by misfortune.
It is less than a month until the NHL trade deadline, and there’s a combination of factors why the Avs trying to find a different No. 2 center could be tricky. Colorado has little financial flexibility, Johansen has one more year on his contract (a $4 million cap hit for the Avs) and the early returns on the market this year is that acquiring a center is a very expensive venture.
There are two potential reasons to believe Johansen can play his way out of this funk, beyond just the idea that he’s been a very good NHL player for a long time. Both are rooted in the unknown, which could be a tough leap of faith for a team that expects to win the Stanley Cup.
The first is Johansen’s postseason track record. He has 48 points in 61 career playoff games, and earned a reputation for shining when the lights were the brightest with the Nashville Predators.
“It’s all about going into the playoffs with that confidence and swagger and then just raising your game even a little more,” Johansen said. “If the playoffs started today, I wouldn’t be happy with where my game is at. It’s all about wanting to be happy with where my game’s at for the playoffs. We still have a good amount of time here, but I’ve got to raise my level here and do more for the group.”
The second is the eventual return of Valeri Nichushkin. Before Lehkonen’s injury and before Nichushkin entered the NHL/NHLPA Players’ Assistance Program, the best stretch of Johansen’s season at 5-on-5 came with those two players flanking him.
It was only a handful of games, but the Avs had more than 72% of the expected goals with that trio on the ice at 5-on-5 in 38:30 of ice time. That’s far too small of a sample size to draw conclusions from, but when the Avs have their full complement of forwards available, putting those three back together to see if that can be a viable second line to start the playoffs makes sense.
“It’s tough to say what will happen,” Johansen said. “If you look at our team on paper, it’s special. When we’re firing on all cylinders, it’s a special team and we can feel that when we’re rolling. We know it’s possible for a couple guys to come back, but that’s not our job to focus on that. It’s to win games and do things to help this group win.”
There is no timeline for Nichushkin’s return, and there’s no guarantee Bednar will give Johansen that chance. It is possible that Johansen’s style of play will play up better for the Avs in the playoffs, but both he and the coach want it to be better before that.
“I want our guys developing the right habits and the consistency in their game right from day one of training camp and hopefully we’re getting better as individuals and as a team throughout the year,” Bednar said. “You tend to see guys dialing it up at that time of year, but we’re trying to push that earlier and earlier here as we move on, because we have championship aspirations and that’s what it takes in order to get there.”
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