WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Size is Ross Johnston’s most noticeable asset and with it comes the expectation of being a physical player. The Islanders left wing has never shied away from that part of the game when he has had the opportunity to play.
But his teammates and coaches, and even Johnston himself, see something else in his 6-5, 235-pound frame as he continues to work on his hockey skills.
“There’s a lot of growth opportunity there and I think there’s a lot more talent than people will give him credit for,” linemate Cal Clutterbuck said. “When you’re willing to do what he does, or be physical in general these days, sometimes the talent gets overlooked a touch. I think he’s got more in him than maybe even he realizes.”
Johnston was in the lineup for a third straight game while Matt Martin, the teammate he is most often compared to, remained a healthy scratch as the Islanders opened a two-game road trip against the Jets at MTS Bell Place on Thursday night.
Clutterbuck, Martin and center Casey Cizikas were entrenched last season as the reunited identity fourth-line and Johnston, as a result, played a sporadic 17 games, with one goal, three assists and 23 penalty minutes. But Cizikas, who has been wearing a walking boot on his left foot, missed his fourth straight game and remains on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.
Johnston, 25, in the second season of a four-year, $4 million deal, took one shot and averaged a team-low 6:58 of ice time in his first two games this season with one fight. But he was already sixth on the team with seven hits credited.
“I think with each game you get more and more comfortable,” Johnston said. “The first period of the first game, it took a little time to adjust to the speed. I think physicality comes first and that’s my main role. But when I have the opportunity to control the puck below the hashmarks, for instance, I feel pretty comfortable down there. It’s something that didn’t happen overnight.”
Johnston has worked with a skating coach each summer since turning pro in 2014 and said he believes the improvement in his hockey skills since getting one game with the Islanders in 2015-16 is “day and night.”
Overall, Johnston entered Thursday night’s game with four goals, six assists and 94 penalty minutes in 44 career NHL games.
“It’s all about patience, trusting what you’re working on,” Johnston said of spending long stretches as a healthy scratch. “And when you’re watching the game, picking up things you think you can put into your own game. I try to keep it simple. I just try to be physical and just get my legs back into it when there is that lull between games. Just taking advantage of the opportunity when you do get put back in and making it tough for the coaches to take you out is my main goal.”
Coach Barry Trotz said being able to work extensively with the Islanders’ assistants and skill coaches was a benefit to Johnston’s limited ice time last season.
It made him, Trotz said, “a better player, plain and simple.”
“The first thing you see is size and you don’t realize how quick he actually is, he covers a lot of ground,” Trotz said. “He can make some plays. He can hang on to the puck. He can be physical. If you want to drop the gloves, I don’t know if there’s too many guys better than him in the league. He’s forcing decisions, not only on our fourth line, but maybe up and down our lineup.”
Here are the projected lineups:
Anders Lee-Mathew Barzal-Tom Kuhnhackl
Anthony Beauvillier-Brock Nelson-Michael Dal Colle
Josh Bailey-Derick Brassard-Oliver Wahlstrom
Ross Johnston-Leo Komarov-Cal Clutterbuck
Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk
Adam Pelech-Ryan Pulock
Devon Toews-Scott Mayfield
Semyon Varlamov (1-2-0, 3.16 goals-against average, .905 save percentage)
Patrik Laine-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor-Andrew Copp-Nikolaj Ehlers
Mathieu Perreault-Adam Lowry-Jack Roslovic
Gabriel Bourque-David Gustafsson-Mason Appleton
Josh Morrissey-Tucker Poolman
Carl Dahlstrom-Neal Pionk
Ville Heinola-Dmitry Kulikov
Connor Hellebuyck (3-2-0, 2.83, .919)