The Islanders have been starved for aggression, so Ross Johnston and his hard-nosed play comes as a much-needed surprise.
How about that for a Long Island welcome.
In the years to follow, Johnston racked up over 320 penalties in minutes for the Islanders’ minor league club, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He recorded 12 goals, added 30 assists, and contributed an average +/- rating of -5 — not exactly inspiring figures.
The move is befuddling for a number of reasons. The number of brawls is noticeably on the downturn, as teams continue to devalue their enforcers — players who roam the ice in search of a fighting partner. At 6’5”, 225 lbs., Johnston fits the bill for just the type of skater that teams are trying to eradicate.
This offseason, Johnston worked on his skating and forechecking — signs that he recognizes the limits of his style of play. But Johnston will never be a 20-goal scorer or an All-Star forward. His role will always be, for as long as his role exists, to antagonize the opposition.
So far, so good.
In his first game of the 2017-18 season, Johnston made his presence known, standing up to Chicago Blackhawks forward Ryan Hartman at the midpoint of the third period.
It was just the Islanders’ ninth fight of the season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. This team is characteristically soft, and losing Matt Martin and Travis Hamonic in recent years hasn’t helped.
Writes my colleague Rick Weiner:
It’s not so much that the Islanders need a fighter. But they need someone whose mere presence will make other teams think twice about taking cheap shots against them. A player who is willing to hit a bully in the nose and stand toe-to-toe with him afterward.
Until the Islanders find someone who is able to do just that, opposing players will continue to do whatever they want—because there’s no fear of repercussion, retribution or five minutes in the box.
Perhaps the Islanders have finally found someone to fill that void. Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson recently remarked to Michael Fornabaio of the CT Post that “…he plays heavy on the boards, heavy at the net. He’s tough as nails. It’s an opportunity for him to see if he can do it in the NHL, to bring some kind of edge, bite.”
It appears that he can. “Ross is a big aggressive forward which is something we’re lacking now,” said Doug Weight. “We have some decisions to make.”
The Islanders haven’t gotten sufficient contributions from their bottom-six forwards (e.g. Brock Nelson, Jason Chimera and Ho-Sang ), so perhaps the team needs a little aggression. Fast, puck-moving play has helped the Isles up to this point. It’s time for a real goon to take over.
The Islanders needed to send a message to the rest of the league that they’re not to be messed with. Ross Johnston sends that message. Opposing teams are going to need all the help they can get.