- Scott Burnside, NHL
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COLUMBUS -- Early in the season, someone asked Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards which player needed to step up with a big season -- other than defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky..
The answer came quickly and without hesitation: Ryan Johansen.
It might have seemed like a lot to ask of the fourth-overall pick in the 2010 draft.
After all, Johansen managed just 14 goals and 33 points in his first 107 games for the Blue Jackets.
But Richards was prescient, as the 6-foot-3, 223-pound center exploded this season with 33 goals and 63 points, the runaway leader in both categories for a Blue Jackets team that exceeded expectations and qualified for the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
What was it that sparked the emergence? Magic?
"Confidence," Richards said Sunday as his team prepared to host the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal, currently knotted at one game each after the Blue Jackets stunned the Penguins in double overtime Saturday evening.
"You go back to the previous seasons, it's maturity, just growing up. I think sometimes we want these guys to, we're asking questions, why isn't he better? I mean, he's a young kid and you're asking a lot, sometimes demanding too much or expecting too much. I think to have the expectations are good, but again you have to keep reminding yourself that he's a young player and he's still got a [lot of] growing to do and a lot of learning to do."
What's interesting about the likable Johansen, who grew up in British Columbia and played his junior hockey in Portland of the Western Hockey League, is that the question is no longer, "When is he going to get better?" Now it's, "Holy smokes, how good can this kid be?"
"There's still a lot of room. It was interesting," Richards said. "Game 1, you didn't see a lot of Joe, and [Saturday] night we saw a lot more of Joe, a lot more of Joe. He had the puck, played big, played strong and, when he does that and uses his size to his advantage, he's a tough player to play against, tough player to defend because he's a good skater, he has his speed, he has his burst but he has his size."
The 21-year-old acknowledged that during his first two seasons, which included time in the American Hockey League during the 2012-13 lockout, there was a mixture of disappointment at his lack of production and a firm belief that things would turn around.
"I think it's both," Johansen told ESPN.com Sunday. "When you're in the moment, it's obviously at times disappointing when you're not producing or finding ways to get on the score sheet or things like that.
"But at the same time, I've always been a self-confident person that's always believed in myself. I didn't have the easiest road coming up through juniors and stuff and really had to work as an underdog, so for me it was just keep plugging away, keep staying focused and having fun and enjoying this game and I'm just happy where I'm at today."
Some young players might shrink from the notion that they are "the man" on offense for a team desperate for success. Johansen has embraced the role.
"I have the biggest smile on my face coming to the rink every day and knowing that I could be that difference-maker every night and having a little success obviously with a little more pressure with playing at the top of your level," Johansen said.
He admitted he didn't like his effort in Game 1 but was much better in Game 2, scoring his first goal of the playoffs and adding an assist.
It's impossible to have a discussion about Johansen without broadening the conversation to include the rest of Columbus' young core. When the playoffs began, 11 Blue Jackets were playing in their first NHL postseason game. They are the second-youngest of the 16 playoff teams (Tampa is the youngest).
In Game 1, they blew a 3-1 lead and lost 4-3. On Saturday, though, they fell behind the Penguins 3-1 but rallied to tie the game in the third period. Then they won it on Matt Calvert's rebound effort early in the second overtime. It was Calvert's second goal of the game in his second-ever playoff appearance.
"We all get along really well off the ice," Johansen said of him and the 24-year-old Calvert. "Like Calvy's goal last night. We live in the same complex and we're driving home, we really get to enjoy that moment together. Those are things we'll remember for a long time. Share these memories right now and be in the moment, it's pretty cool."
One person who's been both surprised and impressed by the Blue Jackets' play is former NHL player and head coach Rick Tocchet.
"They're playing a simple game and I just think their passion has been so impressive, it's enjoyable to watch that team, how passionate they are," Tocchet told ESPN.com Sunday.
The team reminds him a little of an emerging young Philadelphia team in the mid-1980s, a team that also boasted a group of largely untested youngsters.
Sometimes, Tocchet said, the more the merrier when it comes to inexperience, especially in playoff hockey when the stakes are so high.
"You don't realize the magnitude because you have other guys in the soup with you," he said.
It might not be easier, but it is certainly more comfortable.
"I see the young guys in Columbus being comfortable because there's so many of them," Tocchet said. "The spotlight's shared by six, seven, eight guys, not just one or two guys."
Columbus Blue Jackets
"Boone's been one of those guys all year for us," Johansen said. "He's the same player every shift. I've never seen a guy work so hard on the ice and throw his body around as much as he does. For myself, he creates so much space for me and giving me time with the puck. To go along with his physicality and his speed, he's got great hockey sense and he can make a lot of high end plays. We mix pretty good together."
One player who isn't surprised by the rapid maturation of this group is backup netminder Curtis McElhinney, who played with many of the young players in the American Hockey League last season during the lockout.
"Obviously, I had the opportunity to play with some of them last year, so I knew what they were all about," McElhinney said. "It has been impressive. I think a lot of them have stepped up in, like you said, some major roles. It's been nice to see, it's nice to see that progression at such a young age as well."
As for whether there was a defining moment that suggested to Richards, yes, this is going to work out, there wasn't. He believes the team's experience last season in making a spirited push for the playoffs only to fall a point short was a factor (the Blue Jackets finished tied for eighth in the Western Conference before making the switch to the Eastern Conference with the league realignment).
"I think really from the first month of the year, to me, I think there were moments in their games where they showed me and I think they showed the rest of the coaching staff and the rest of the players that they are ready for this, and I'm talking about playing at this level," Richards said.
"I think there was a little bit of a question coming into the playoffs, are we ready for this, and I think the guys have answered that question."
Ryan Johansen exploded this season for a Blue Jackets team that exceeded expectations and qualified for the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history, writes ESPN.com's Scott Burnside.