The decision to sign Ross Johnston to a four-year contract extension this early in the season was still a bit of a shock on Wednesday, but it’s clear that the New York Islanders value the role that he plays.
In fact, the decision to lock up the fourth-liner for another four seasons may point to what the team’s plan is when the identity line runs its course. Cal Clutterbuck,33, is on the final year of a five-year extension he signed in 2016 and it’s unclear what the plan for him is going forward.
Matt Martin, 32, has another two years left on his current four-year deal and Casey Cizikas, 30, is locked up for six years on a contract he signed this past offseason, but the physical style that the fourth line plays could limit their ability to finish out those contracts for a variety of reasons. At 27, Ross Johnston could be the man the Islanders tap to extend the longevity of the identity line for a few more years, even if some of its current members aren’t all there.
“Absolutely, organizationally there’s not a lot of guys that can do what Ross does and fill that role,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said. “We could hopefully extend it and the toll on the fourth line in terms of the physicality and all that, they get marked up. He will be a fresh guy to go in there all the time.”
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Johnston has served that purpose in the past and did so for one game this season while Matt Martin was still recovering from offseason surgery to his ankle. Johnston appeared in the season opener with Clutterbuck and Cizikas, but only played a little more than five minutes in the game.
Leo Komarov was inserted into the lineup the following game in that spot.
Still, the decision to lock up Johnston this early before next summer indicates that the Islanders think that he could be a valuable asset to the fourth line over the term of that deal. While he doesn’t put up a ton of offensive numbers, Johnston has shown he has some offensive upside that doesn’t get recognized as much.
The forward has shown he has speed and good skating, which has translated to offensive opportunities when he has been on the ice. During the preseason opener against the New York Rangers Johnston scored a pretty looking goal off a feed from Clutterbuck.
“He can add another element for us, there’s another level for Ross,” Trotz said. “Believe it or not with all the time that he’s working with our coaching staff and doing some of the skills stuff, and skating stuff, there’s a lot of elements in his game that have come a long way in the last couple of years.
“He’s a big man who fills a role for us and an identity for us that we’ll continue with.”
The Islanders “Identity Line” has picked up its play since Martin returned to the lineup last week, which was a needed sign for New York which relies a lot on them to set the tone of the game. Since all three have been reunited, the Islanders picked up points in four straight games and have gone 3-0-1.
When Ross Johnston will get back into the lineup is unclear, but it’s no secret what is expected of him regardless of whether he plays or not.
“It’s just coming to the rink every day and putting my head down, and working,” Johnston said. “My role is pretty clear. I’m a physical forward and I provide a presence. When I’m put in the lineup things don’t necessarily change. I just go in and play my game. When those opportunities present themselves I have to take advantage, but for me my role is clear and I’ll be ready to go when the time comes.”
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