There have not been many opportunities for Ross Johnston to break into the Islanders lineup over the last few years. Over the past three seasons, the rugged forward has worked hard and when he’s been called upon, Johnston has been able to fit in well to whatever role the Islanders have thrown at him.
With Matt Martin slowly working his way back from an injury, Johnston took his place on the fourth line during Sunday night’s 4-0 win over the Rangers in the pre-season opener. It wasn’t the first time that Johnston has skated with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck and he fit in on the “identity” line seamlessly as all three players scored goals. Johnston set up Clutterbuck’s second period goal and then in the third period he redirected a pass from Clutterbuck out of midair for a goal of his own.
“I think when you play with Casey and Cal, the game is pretty simple,” said the 27-year-old Johnston. “You kind of know what’s expected of you. You get pucks in deep and you just kind of do your best to recover and give them space and time and kind of just roll over on the forecheck. There’s a little bit of a familiarity there but it’s nice to jump back in and kind of get back into action here.”
Johnston is always ready when he’s needed in the lineup, but those opportunities have been few and far between during his Islanders career.
Undrafted, Johnston signed an entry-level contract with the Islanders in in 2015. He made his NHL debut playing one game for the Isles during the 2015-16 season. He was a regular for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport during the 2016-17 season playing 62 games for the Sound Tigers and then in 2017-18, he split time between Bridgeport (38 games) and the Islanders (24 games). Over the last three seasons, he’s appeared in 61 regular season games as well as five playoff contests, all in the bubble during the 2019-20 postseason.
With the Islanders’ four lines seemingly set for the 2021-22 season, Johnston will continue to have to wait for his opportunities, but the coaching staff will not hesitate at all in calling his number. Filling in on the fourth line is expected to be his primary role, but Johnston can also help out elsewhere if needed.
“There haven’t been a lot of injuries to (Matt Martin) and that’s sort of where he fits that rule and I’ve used Ross a little higher but he can play,” said Head Coach Barry Trotz. “Through the preseason, I’ve told him that I’m going to play him a lot in a few more games because he’s missed some time.”
As the Islanders’ six game pre-season schedule rolls on, including Tuesday night’s contest in Philadelphia, Johnston will continue to see big minutes as the team starts to get regulars like Martin, Anders Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau back in the lineup. The 6-5 232-pound native of Charlottetown, PEI in Canada will try to make the most of his opportunities during the exhibition games and then be ready when called upon once the regular season commences on October 14th in Carolina.
To steal a line from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ross “The Boss” Johnston “knows his role”.
“I think the last two years there’s obviously a formula that works here with us and no matter who’s in the lineup it seems like we have success,” said Johnston. “I think my game is pretty simple. I know what I bring to the team. Those other parts and obviously the numbers that we have in the depth is out of my control so when it’s time for me to go in I kind of toe my line I try to do my job as best I can.”
The Islanders, coming off of back-to-back trips to the NHL’s final four, have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success over the last three seasons because they’ve had the depth to fill voids left by injuries or to just give regulars a game off here and there. When the team is whole, there aren’t a lot of chances for Johnston to get in the lineup, but that doesn’t take away from the trust that the Islanders have in him.
“In his role, we’ve had some good depth and unfortunately, we’ve had some people penciled ahead of him a little bit,” said Trotz. “But, in the time that he’s not playing, he’s made it productive in working on some of his edges, skills, wall play and ability to score. He can do all of those things. We feel that he’s a guy that has taken a long road but he’s an effective player.”
During his NHL career with the Islanders, Johnston has chipped in offensively with 7 goals and 8 assists for 15 points but his big contributions have come from the physical nature of his game as he’s amassed 202 penalty minutes. Johnston is also responsible in his own end with a career plus/minus rating of +1. At the end of the day, Johnson wants to play but he also knows that the ultimate goal is for the Islanders to win a Stanley Cup.
“The team success is obviously the greater picture so whatever I can do to help the team is kind of why I’m here,” said Johnston.
Ross Johnston has all of the tools to be an effective player in the National Hockey League and he’s shown that with the Islanders. He can certainly play a physical game and he has also displayed the ability to chip in offensively from time to time. But his most important contribution for the Islanders has been the ability to prepare to play and be ready for when his opportunity is there to be in the lineup.
On a team full of regulars and reserves that share the ultimate goal of winning a championship, Johnston fits into what this team is doing like a glove.