The Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit in 13th place overall in the Western Conference with 54 points and a record of 26-36-2. The team has played better after being plagued with injuries earlier in the year, rebounding to a record of 14-10-1 since Jan. 1. The Jackets had eight wins in January, setting a franchise record for highest number of wins in a single month. According to Columbus Head Coach Gerard Gallant, a big reason for the team’s turnaround has been their lack of injuries.
“Our team’s pretty healthy right now and that was the biggest key for us. And then when we started playing better late December, early January, the difference was our team was healthy and we started competing, playing a lot harder. I think we lost four in a row before tonight’s game, but we were playing well in those games so the team is competing, playing hard. “
The injury bug returned enough for the Jackets to call up defenseman Aaron Johnson on Mar. 2.
Johnson, Columbus’ third round choice from 2001, played 29 games with the team in 2003-04, scoring eight points. Last year, in 77 games with the Syracuse Crunch, Johnson earned 6 goals and 23 points. In just 49 games this season, he has eclipsed that total with 5 goals and 29 points. His point total this season marks a career high in his three years at the AHL level.
“We’ve got a great team around us down in Syracuse so I think with guys scoring a lot more it’s helping me out,” he said. “I’m just trying to put the puck on the net and guys are burying it and that helps.”
The defenseman admitted that the new rules have also helped him improve his numbers.
“Well, I think the new rules [help] because there are more power play situations and that’s where I play the most so I think that’s definitely going to help me excel. It’s a faster game now so I hope my speed will keep me at the NHL level.”
Due to his improved play this season, it’s no wonder that the Blue Jackets recalled the 6’1 Nova Scotia native. In his second call-up this season, Johnson said he will not try to change his game but stick to the same offensive style that has brought him success at the AHL level.
“You just try to go out and play your game,” he said. “You just try to help the team win each game. You don’t look any farther than that. You don’t know how long you’re going to be here so you just go out and play hard and make the most of it while you’re here.”
In seven games with the Blue Jackets this year, Johnson had been paired with veteran defenseman Luke Richardson until Richardson was dealt at the trade deadline. Johnson has a goal and an assist on the season while logging an average of 12:49 minutes of ice time per game. And while the Blue Jackets aren’t a threat to make the playoffs, Johnson hopes to help contribute to the team to help them continue to win.
“I’m just trying to play my game. I think they’ve given me a lot of opportunities in the power play situations. I just got to make the most of it right now. It’s a team that’s trying to finish the season with a plus and a couple big wins,” said Johnson.
Johnson admits that he didn’t always just play his game. In the past, like many prospects who have just been called up, he was guilty of worrying about being sent down.
“Your first couple of years you think about [being sent down], but now I think you know to just go out and play your game and you hope for the best. You control the things that you can control on the ice. I go out and just play my game on the ice. I can’t control what they’re doing up there in the office or making decision-wise,” he said.
Johnson’s improved play has impressed Blue Jackets General Manager Doug MacLean and Head Coach Gerard Gallant. Both the GM and coach feel that there is an obvious maturity and confidence in the 2004 AHL All-Star’s game.
“He’s really just matured,” said MacLean. “He’s a young player so he just needs more experience, more defensive-minded, more composure. He’s a good prospect.“
“We really like Aaron,” added Gallant. “He’s an offensive guy that lugs the puck real well and we talked about him. He’s got to jump in at the right time and do the right things. And now he’s played very well and played real hard. He’s a good kid for our future.”
Johnson himself can also feel the difference with the Columbus now that the team has begun to win. The change in the atmosphere is obvious.
“Yes, definitely. It was feeling like we were holding our sticks a little tighter earlier in the season. I think they’ve played awesome before the Olympic break and it’s taken some cloud off the shoulders. Everyone is playing hard right now. They know what kind of situation we’re in and we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves and make the best of the situation.”
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