Ryan Johnson is a shot-blocking machine and he pays the price for his sacrifice
Ryan Johnson has been called many things throughout his 11-year NHL career and most labels are par for the course. |
He’s diligent and unrelenting with a tenacious snarl that makes him a ferocious competitor, but also stubborn and hardheaded at times.
It’s all sticks and stones to Johnson, as long as he’s never tagged as a flamingo.
In the hockey world there are few words as hard-hitting as that, it’s right up there with coward. Flamingo refers to a player who lifts one leg to avoid blocking a shot; a dastardly dead if ever there was one.
Johnson shouldn’t have to worry about dealing with this label anytime soon as his shot-blocking ability is unparalleled for forwards.
Heading into Vancouver’s tilt Tuesday night in St. Louis against his former team, Johnson ranks 128th in blocked shots this season, but third overall for non-defencemen. Only Philadelphia’s Mike Richards and Andy Hilbert of the New York Islanders have more blocks and they’ve played more games this season.
Johnson has compiled 52 blocked shots in just 32 games; as much as Daniel Sedin loves scoring big goals, Johnson is passionate about sacrificing his body to spoil the opposition’s attack.
“It’s something I’ve kind of always done,” said Johnson, prior to hitting the road for a three-game jaunt with the Canucks.
“People think it’s something I picked up three or four years ago, but I’ve done it my whole career back into junior and college.”
The product of Thunder Bay, Ont., first realized the benefits of shot-blocking as a member of the now defunct Thunder Bay Flyers of the USHL, and he honed his mad skillz in two seasons of NCAA hockey with the University of North Dakota.
“I remember my college coach saying to me ‘you do it real well, can we get some tennis balls out here and get you working with some of the other guys on positioning your body and stuff?’”
Johnson obliged because he believes shot-blocking is infectious and while a lot of his teammates were trying to mimic his talent, they were only making things worse on the team.
Believe it or not, there’s a method to Johnson’s madness, he isn’t just flinging himself in front of a shot all willie-nillie hoping that it hits him.
“It starts when the players come off the bench,” explained Johnson, who was the best shot-blocking forward in the NHL last year with 105 blocks.
“I’m always looking to see what hand they are, especially the defenceman out on the ice, so that if I see a pass going defence to defence, I don’t have to look, I know that’s a left-handed one-timer shot from over there.
“Then when the play begins it’s a matter of instinct and anticipation. I’m trying to see the play before it happens so I can put my body in the best position to do it.
“Once there is a shot, if they’re a right handed shot I’m usually trying to put my feet at the stick and my head at his legs, that keeps him from being able to just walk around me.
“There’s a lot of details like that that goes into it, as opposed to just dropping in front of him.”
What started as simply another way to help take away scoring chances, has become Johnson’s calling card and that certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Vancouver dressing room.
“It’s great,” said an enthusiast Roberto Luongo, the benefactor of Johnson’s courage.
“He’s ready to sacrifice his body at any occasion and sometimes you’re caught out of position or you don’t see the puck and he gets in front of those shots, so it saves a lot of shots on goal and probably some goals too every once and a while.”
Johnson has also been the goat on a few goals too, like Marc-Andre Bergeron’s blast that deflected in off Johnson’s leg to put Minnesota up 2-0 before eventually beating Vancouver 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 31.
“He had the right intentions, it was just a bad bounce,” said Luongo.
“Things like that are going to happen once and a while, but the positives obviously outweigh the negatives when it comes to shot-blocking like Ryan does.”
Johnson and Luongo discuss their strategies quite often, typically concluding that as long as Johnson gets his entire body down on the ice, it’s all good.
“Usually when a guy lays down, he’s going to block it, and if he doesn’t then the puck goes over him and I’m able to see it anyways,” added Luongo.
“I’m always looking to see the angle of the shot and the last thing I ever want to do is be a screen to Louie, and that is why I’m going down a lot of times,” said Johnson.
Stopping shots from getting through on goal, as glamorous and exciting as Johnson makes it sound, doesn’t come easy.
He missed a chunk of 20 games earlier this season with a broken finger on his right hand and a broken bone in his left foot, both the results of blocked shots, and he even played through the latter for six weeks before letting it heal.
Take that Chuck Norris.
“I know I’ve got a very good pain tolerance, it’s something that I’ve kind of built up over the years. I think for hockey players a lot of the time it’s the pride of how much can you push yourself and I take a lot of pride in being able to push through certain injuries.”
Evidence of that is in Johnson’s legs, which on this day weren’t as painfully battered as usual. Johnson has become so accustomed to gruesome bruises that he’s taken to photographing them, or letting others snap a few pictures.
“Last year Sheldon Souray let one go as hard as he could, I went down and it went right off my right quad and it just blew up my leg. The doctors helping me asked if they could take pictures because they’d never seen anything like that before, they wanted to show it to their patients,” laughed Johnson.
“They actually took a picture a week later because from my hip down to my ankle it was just like a black mess, it looked like somebody had painted it that way, the bruising was that bad.”
Did Johnson miss any time? Of course not, he was right back in the line of fire later that game ready to make his left leg just as colourful.
“I’ve seen shades of blacks to yellows and purples and blues, I’ve even seen some greens, I’ve seen about everything.
“When it’s a really, really bad one, I’ll take a picture just for fun and I keep it. I’m sure it sounds stupid, but they’re my war wounds and I’m proud of them.”
My Journey to the NHL
New Canucks on the block
4 - Points for Johnson this season (2-2-4)
11 - Seasons in the NHL, this is Johnson's first in Vancouver
52 - Blocked shots for Johnson this season
105 - Shots blocked by Johnson in 2007-08, the most by any forward
106 - Points (36-70-106) in 579 career games
Pain for gain
Coping with pain