Dare I say Ross Johnston is making a home for himself on the first line?

The New York Islanders are slowly but steadily nearing the halfway point of the season. Still two or three games behind most of the League, the team has a 22-8-2 record after 32 games. Given how horribly that last game against Nashville went, let’s just focus on the 22 wins, shall we?

Together, the Islanders’ rookies make up a large contribution to the overall success – Ross Johnston included since he’s been in the NHL for four years but has yet to play a full season. The 25-year-old has floated among the Isles’ healthy scratches for some time but never received a real spot on the roster since he’s considered nothing more than a bruising bottom-six enforcer, good for hitting, fighting, and nothing else.

Finally, though, he’s been given a real shot. And he’s not half-bad.

With that loss to Nashville, Johnston played his 18th game this season. Last season, he only played 17, even though he was a full member of the team, and scored a goal and three assists. Since he played in well-spaced isolated games, it was probably hard to get skating, let alone find chemistry with his linemates. He practiced regularly, but games carry a far different speed and intensity. Plus, he was an awkward combination of rusty and overeager to prove himself each time.

This season, he has two goals and no assists, but Coach Barry Trotz put him on the first line instead of the fourth. He got his start, as expected, on the fourth line to fill in for injuries, but Trotz’ (in)famous line-blender placed him next to Mat Barzal in Las Vegas at the start of December.

In his six games on the first line, Johnston’s had at least a shot in five of them. His physicality, not usually seen on the first line, creates space for Barzal to work the puck and show off all his fancy skating and puck-handling abilities. Basically, he was promoted from the rookies’ protection in October and November to Barzal’s protection in December.

When the Isles have zone pressure, Johnston is in front of the net just like Anders Lee: screening the goaltender, muscling defensemen out of the way, looking for the deflection with his own budding stick skills. Also in these six games, Johnston hasn’t taken a penalty in five of them– in fact, he hasn’t taken a penalty since early November against Toronto. Ignoring the ridiculous “charging” call and needless 10-minute misconduct at the end of the Nashville game, that is, when the refs tried to “take control” of the high-scoring humiliation as Brendan Burke said.

All-in-all, Johnston is growing into a great player. Seeing him on the first line was shocking at first, but he’s making it work. Forget the next Cal Clutterbuck or Matt Martin like I usually say, Johnston could be the next Lee if he keeps working hard for his first line spot.

This isn’t the first time I’ve said Johnston has a bright future (x, x, x). Granted, I thought he’d strictly stay on the third and fourth lines, but I’m so glad he’s finally finding noticeable success.

Featured Image: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
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