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Ryan Johnston is exactly what the IceCaps need

The once unknown NCAA free agent has made a dramatic impact with the St. John's IceCaps just eight games into his professional career

St. John's IceCaps / Colin Peddle

Ryan Johnston's transition to professional hockey has not been without trouble. The un-drafted free agent signing this past off-season underwent surgery on a L5-S1 herniation with having impressing at the Rookie Tournament. It sidelined the rookie forward until mid-January, when he finally played his first professional game.

While silky smooth defender struggled mightily in his first AHL game, he promptly responded with three assists in the following three games. While he has since gone pointless in the following four, he remains a staple of the third pairing and the powerplay. Although his overall play has been volatile to begin his AHL career, Johnston has showcased a variety of skills, including a level of poise and creativity that both the IceCaps and Canadiens desperately need.

First and foremost, Johnston is a two-way defender whose skill set lies closer to the offensive side of the spectrum. Although his top-end speed doesn't particularly standout, Johnston's four-way mobility is quite impressive. Utilizing tremendous edge work, he showcases an excellent ability to evade checks and beat forecheckers. He is decisive, making decisions immediately and committing to them.

In the above clip, Johnston demonstrates what arguably has been his best asset to the IceCaps thus far: Zone entries. He gains the zone with good evasive skating and stickhandling. When the puck comes back to him, he showcases another talent, his ability to hold the blue line. From there, the skills of Michael McCarron, Charles Hudon, and Sven Andrighetto do the rest.

Johnston leads the rush on the powerplay this time. As he heads up the ice, he is constantly scanning the ice for options. Instead of dumping the puck in, Johnston finds the trailing Hudon, who promptly fires the puck to Andrighetto. Andrighetto then easily gains the zone as the defenders have backed into their own zone. This might seem like a fairly mundane play, but it's one that illustrates creativity that the IceCaps have lacked. It's an example of one of many tremendous zone entries orchestrated by Johnston.

With possession in the zone, Johnston has showed that he possesses quality vision and excellent patience. Although he isn't much of a shooting threat, his vision creates dangerous scoring chances virtually every game. Additionally, the defender already makes the best breakout pass of any defender on the team.

Defensively, Johnston has fairly adventurous thus far. He has been prone to crippling turnovers, especially behind his own net. While he doesn't appear afraid of contact, he often gets pushed off the puck easily or turns it over, which has already result in a couple of goals against.

However, there have been some fabulous plays, where Johnston has shown excellent gap control, smarts, and skating ability.

In the above clip, Johnston recognizes Nikita Scherbak coming back to help, so he jumps in the passing lane, and stifles the chance. With Andrighetto cutting across the ice, Johnston opts to obtain possession himself, giving Andrighetto an opportunity to barrel up the ice. Johnston perfectly times the pass, creating a three-on-two rush the other way. This patient, heads-up style is what the IceCaps need more of.

Finally, here Johnston recovers nicely on a broken play. He patiently awaits for the incoming forward, then quickly gets his stick within poke check range. The excellent gap control is complimented with a perfectly timed pivot and a smart backcheck from Lucas Lessio, forcing the play up the boards. Then Johnston goes to the net, ties up the forward at the top of the crease, and the play heads back up the ice.

Just eight games into his professional career, and Johnston is already making an impact with the IceCaps. While there are elements that need serious improvement, it's important to keep in mind that he has played just eight professional comes, returning from a major injury. Furthermore, Johnston has played mostly on his off side, not a particularly easy task for a player adapting to a faster-paced game.

Johnston brings an unique dynamic to an unimpressive IceCaps blue line. The lack of the ability to gain the zone in a controlled manner has been a major problem the IceCaps this year (and the Bulldogs in years previous). That weakness is arguably Johnston's biggest strength as a player. Continually, he makes zone exits and entrances look effortless. He has poise and awareness in his game that the IceCaps blue line desperately needs.

Although Johnston's individual tools won't blow you away, the sum of his parts will. With just four wins their past 15 games, Johnston's unique style may be exactly what the IceCaps need to turn their season around.