SUNRISE, Fla. — Ross Johnston knows it’s easy to look at his 6-5, 235-pound frame and have some preconceived notions of what kind of player he is.
“When you see a bigger guy on paper coming into the league, the picture is already kind of painted before it starts,” Johnston said after the Islanders’ brisk, 35-minute practice on Wednesday at BB&T Center that emphasized breakouts, battle drills and hard skating.
“Sometimes, it just kind of takes some time to paint your own picture.”
The Islanders will conclude a three-game trip — and a stretch of 10 of 13 on the road — against the Panthers on Thursday night and Johnston is expected to start on Mathew Barzal’s top line for the fourth straight game.
He scored a shooter’s goal in Monday night’s 5-1 win over the Lightning, beating goalie Curtis McElhinney over his shoulder and off the far post with a right-circle wrist shot.
The physical edge will always be there for the 25-year-old Johnston, who has played in just 57 games for the Islanders since his NHL debut on April 10, 2016 and has been a healthy scratch 14 times this season. He has two goals in 15 games.
But coach Barry Trotz said Johnston “gets up and down the ice way better than people think.”
“If you go once around the rink, you’d be surprised,” Trotz said. “He’d finish in the top third, for sure, on our team.”
Trotz also noted that pairing Johnston with a sleek-skating playmaker in Barzal is not a new experiment. Johnston did start on Barzal’s left wing along with Jordan Eberle in the Islanders’ second preseason game, a 3-2 win over the Flyers at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Sept. 17.
Johnston has logged 12-plus minutes of ice time in his three games on Barzal’s line after exceeding nine minutes in just two of his first 12 games this season.
He has slid into captain Anders Lee’s former spot on the top line. The 6-3, 231-pound Lee developed into a top-six power forward who notched a career-high 40 goals in 2017-18.
“If you’re getting results, I don’t think it matters how you look like skating,” Lee said. “If you’re making plays and you’re doing what the team and the coaches are asking for and you’re producing, I don’t think it matters.”
“Yes, you’re portrayed a certain way, you have to time shake that portrayal out of there,” Johnston said. “At the end of the day, it’s just knowing your job and knowing what you’re good at. If you’re playing to that, I don’t think it matters what the other view is. All the outside noise is just noise.”
Notes & Quotes: Defenseman Nick Leddy returned to practice after missing Monday’s game but Trotz said it was questionable whether he would be in the lineup against the Panthers. “It’s too early right now,” Trotz said. “He felt good today but I kept him out of one drill at the end just to be safe.” Leddy hobbled off the ice seemingly unable to put weight on his left skate late in the third period of Saturday night’s 3-1 loss at Dallas.
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