While superstar players sure are fun to watch zip around the ice whipping out a bag of tricks with the puck that almost convinces you a freestyle stickhandling event could become part of the Olympics, they generally aren’t my favourite players.
Come playoff time in close matchups, opposing star players often cancel each other out in terms of the effect they have, with some exceptions. It’s usually the role players, determined to step up their game, who control the tide and make key differences en route to victory.
Last season you look around the NHL at players like Max Talbot, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, Dan Cleary and Chad LaRose and you have to wonder how their teams would have done without them and their ilk.
Enter Ryan Johnson, the craziest, toughest, most unselfish soldier in the NHL today.
Instead of dangling and dodging defence, this guy sacrifices his personal well-being by flinging his seemingly tiny 6-foot-1, 202-pound frame at pucks in any way possible. How many times do you see this guy launch himself in front of a puck and cringe for him?
Take a look at the stats. Johnson ranks near the bottom on the Canucks with an average of 11:15 in ice time per game, typical for a guy in his role. Yet, Johnson ranks third on the team in blocked shots with 28, nine behind team leader Willie Mitchell, a stand-up difference-maker in his own right.
Not only do the two players ahead of Johnson in blocked shots (Mitchell and Alexander Edler, both defencemen) have four more games played each, but they also average at least 10 minutes more ice time per game. Ten minutes! On top line duty! From a position that parks itself in front of the net!
He’s never going to be a big point-scorer and he’ll never even win a Selke, but Johnson is a valuable depth commodity for any playoff team. Can you believe that Johnson, along with a sixth-round pick, was traded to Florida back in 2001 for Vaclav Prospal, a player currently producing at better than a point per game pace in New York?
Points are glamorous and there is no downside to production, but if you already had a top line, let me ask you: Who would you rather have in your playoff lineup?