Like the physical, domineering presences that came before him, Ross Johnston knows why he’s at the NHL level with the New York Islanders, but the opportunities to find the ice have come few and far between.
Prior to Wednesday night’s clash with the Winnipeg Jets, the 29-year-old winger appeared in 13 of the Islanders’ first 60 games — sat as a healthy scratch through breaks of eight days, two weeks, 12 days, one month, and 27 days between nights he wasn’t a healthy scratch. The most consecutive games he had played this season had been three.
“The last few seasons have been challenging but for me,” Johnston told amNewYork. “It’s just keeping my body ready and I wrap my head around that all the time.”
On practice days and morning skates, Johnston can often be found on the ice early shooting with the Islanders’ extra skaters and working on his skating well after practice is done. On game nights, however, he’s in the press box where at times he was passed over for younger wingers who had little to no NHL experience.
“I’m here for a certain role and that’s physicality and that’s providing space for my teammates,” Johnston said. “When certain guys go down, sometimes it’s not just necessarily a ‘throw me in there’ as the obvious choice. There’s some plug-and-play and that comes with some organizational depth we’ve built up over the years.
“The guys that have been called up worked extremely hard to get this opportunity.”
This is who the 6-foot-5, 230-pound winger has been as a teammate for the seven years he’s been with the organization — always quick to deflect praise or credit away from himself even when there isn’t a surplus of opportunities to build chemistry with them on the ice. He’s played in just 131 NHL games over those seven seasons.
“When you don’t play for stretches, it’s almost like you’re on the outside and not involved,” Johnston continued. “But being here for four or five years in this situation, you have close friends on the team and you’re always around them. This group makes you feel part of it even when you’re maybe not a part of it directly.”
It’s that connection with his teammates, though, that makes it all the easier for Johnston to jump into the trenches when he is called upon and provide a spark — just as he did on Saturday in Pittsburgh when he tussled against the Penguins late in the second period, taking on the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker, to light a fire under an Islanders team that was trailing 2-1.
They wound up winning 4-2 for a vital two points that moved them into the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s a guy that has worked really hard over the years to improve his game and continues to work hard,” veteran winger Matt Martin said. “He hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunity this season but when he comes in, he impacts the game… Regardless of the role you’re in, if you can impact the hockey game in a positive way and help the team win, that’s all that matters.”
Perhaps with the Islanders as shorthanded as they are with forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Josh Bailey injured (Oliver Wahlstrom and Cal Clutterbuck are also on IR), this is his chance for that elusive consistent playing time.
“He’s a character guy,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert added. “He just comes to work every day and doesn’t complain. He understands his role for the most part so I think it’s an opportunity for him now and he did a good job in Pittsburgh and he needs to keep going.”
So, for now, the mindset remains the same for the tough guy they like to call “Ross the Boss.”
“I’d say it’s majority mental, to be honest, if you haven’t had the ice time to keep your body ready,” he said. “Telling yourself that your chance will come, whether for one game or two or three in a row, you don’t know that. So that’s the mental part of it. But giving your body the best chance for when you do get put in is the only option you have.
“We’re in a dogfight right now and we’re going to need everyone whether it’s me or them. It’s frustrating in certain instances but when it doesn’t happen, we move on to the next.”