It wasn’t until the end of the preseason that Columbus and Ryan Johansen came to terms on a three-year, $12 million deal. But the long offseason wait is paying off, and Johansen’s deal is looking like a steal for the Blue Jackets.
In what was one of the most contentious contract negotiations the league has seen in several seasons, the Blue Jackets and Johansen, a standout fourth-year center, battled tooth and nail, back and forth over what was fair value for the restricted free agent. The whole thing became a giant mess. John Davidson, president of the Blue Jackets, went public with a pair of offers to the budding star, said the actions of Johansen’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, were extortion, and the relationship between team and player seemed incredibly strained.
And even if leading into the season that’s how it appeared off the ice, the 22-year-old Vancouver native’s season couldn’t be going any better. With Johansen under contract until 2016-17, the Blue Jackets have a legitimate scoring threat, and at a $4 million cap hit, you can bet they’re aware they got away with one.
With 33 goals and 63 points in his third NHL season, it was evident that Johansen was going to be due for a raise when he became a restricted free agent. It was no secret he’d be looking to cash in and get paid what he was due. And while the raise wasn’t a minor one, the money was what created the tension. He’ll be paid $3 million this season and next, with the big money coming in the third year, when he gets $6 million. It’s money that the Blue Jackets may not have wanted to shell out on a short-term deal, but you’d imagine all has been forgotten now.
The reason the Blue Jackets management is likely fine with the dollars they’ve handed the young pivot? Well, you’d be hard pressed to find a team getting more production out of a $4 million player who’s yet to hit his 25th birthday. Johansen is on pace for 32 goals this season, one shy of his career high set last season, and is looking like he will best his career high point total by more than fifteen points. A lot of that, of course, is thanks to the torrid pace at which he’s been scoring.
In each of the Blue Jackets past 11 games, Johansen has found the score sheet, ringing up seven goals and 13 points over that span. The 11-game streak, a team record, is one better than his streak earlier this season, a 10-game span that began on opening night, Oct. 9, and went until Oct. 31. He’s the only player other than Patrick Kane to have two 10-game streaks in the same season.
On top of that, he’s formed a formidable combo with linemates Scott Hartnell and Nick Foligno, making coach Todd Richards look brilliant for combining the trio and GM Jarmo Kekalainen seem nothing shy of a genius for scooping Hartnell from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for R.J. Umberger.
Johansen has especially excelled with the man advantage, as well. His current shooting percentage with the extra man, 22.4 percent, is second best in the entire league of players who have spent at least 100 minutes playing with the extra man. That’s ahead of names like Steven Stamkos, Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux, Sidney Crosby, and former Blue Jacket Rick Nash. Thanks in large part to Johansen's play on the top unit, the Blue Jackets have the second best power play in the NHL.
Off the score sheet, in his underlying numbers, Johansen looks like he’s growing and becoming a force for Columbus. He’s starting more of his faceoffs in the defensive zone than all but Artem Anisimov, who has been out since November. He’s driving possession well alongside Hartnell and Foligno. And, from a non-hockey sense, he’s a legitimate star for a team who, before Johansen, had only one widely celebrated player on the current roster in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
While the team as a whole has one of the worst possession rates in the league, Johansen doesn’t stand out as a player who has been targeted or been a drag on Columbus’ ability to move the puck up and out of their zone. His Corsi For percentage relative to his teammates is middling, but when taking into account his zone starts, you can appreciate that he hasn’t sunken lower in minutes that are anything but sheltered.
Contract dispute aside, having Johansen in the lineup for whatever amount of money he could have possibly been demanding – $5 million per year? $5.5 million, or even $6 million? – would have been worth it. Teams around the league would fall over themselves to have a 22-year-old center with 85-plus-point potential, and the Jackets landed themselves one in Johansen.
This isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, contract dispute in the NHL, but it’s one that has worked out incredibly well for both parties. And though the Blue Jackets may not have wanted to spend up to whatever number it was that Johansen might have been asking, you can be certain the management feels as though they’re getting more than they paid for.