Some eyebrows were raised a few weeks back at the news of local defenseman Ryan Johnston signing with the Montreal Canadiens straight out of a summer development camp. And this prior to completing his final year with the Colgate Raiders.
Fair to say the announcement surprised even the most ardent Johnston supporters locally. In fact, truth be told, it surprised the Sudbury native himself.
"I definitely didn't expect as much interest as there was," said Johnston, now back home in Northern Ontario, enjoying some ice time with his siblings. "I thought I was playing really well, but I didn't want to think about it too much."
A year earlier, Johnston had experienced his first pro development camp, earning an invitation from the New Jersey Devils.
"When I went to New Jersey, I thought I had a good camp, but I think I tensed up a little too much, focused too much on trying to impress them,” he said.
"This one, I thought that there is no harm that's going to be done to be if I just go out there and play. So I tried to show my offense. I made some mistakes that I might not do in a game. I guess they liked what they saw."
Listed at 5-10 and 177 pounds, there is little doubt that Johnston has had to perfect a style of game that allows the 23-year-old blueliner to hold his own against opposing forwards who, more often than not, will enjoy both a height and weight advantage.
"Being a smaller defenseman, the battles in front of the net, in the corner, are going to be tougher," he said.
"You have to learn how to adapt. You try and keep them to the outside, let them do all the work, and as soon as they make a mistake, where they show the puck too much, or maybe get a little off-balance, that's when you attack them. That was something I had to get used to and had to learn to do better."
Thankfully, his time at Colgate, an NCAA Division I hockey program located in upstate New York (Hamilton), provided just such grounds for development.
"My progression there was very gradual," said Johnston. "I had a pretty rough first year. I think that I was good enough to play, as I eventually showed in my sophomore and junior year, but I wasn't expecting the speed and physicality that comes with playing 23, 24-year-olds that are fully developed."
After racking up eight assists in 35 games as a freshman, Johnston recorded seasons of 19 and 15 points respectively. It was enough to catch the eye of the Canadiens, with the NHL club contacting the local product about midway through the 2014-2015 season, finalizing an invitation to their development camp back in February.
With even bigger bodies to contend with at the professional level, Johnston will continue to focus on his assets that provide a competitive advantage.
"In general, it's making sure I go to pucks faster than them," he said.
"If it was a dump in, or a loose puck in the corner, I can't wait to try and battle the guy. If I can get there earlier, I can shake them off with my speed."
And if he can do that often enough, perhaps Ryan Johnston will have a few more surprises up his sleeves over the next few years.”