How Detrimental of a Loss was Ross Johnston for the NY Islanders?

The Ducks claimed the former Isles' enforcer off of waivers earlier this month, which was an outcome the organization had hoped to avoid in previous seasons.

Ross Johnston has dropped the gloves with more frequency than anyone else in the Islanders' organization the last few seasons.
Ross Johnston has dropped the gloves with more frequency than anyone else in the Islanders' organization the last few seasons. / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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On October 10, the Anaheim Ducks claimed Ross Johnston off of waivers from the NY Islanders. With three years remaining on his contract worth $1.1 million per season, the Islanders were relieved of that minor salary commitment. However, they lost a physical depth player whose willingness to drop the gloves did not go unnoticed by fans and teammates.

Many fans feel that losing Johnston on waivers represents addition by subtraction. The NHL is gradually moving away from fighting, and as that change occurs, Johnston becomes more obsolete with each season. In turn, Johnston would continue taking a spot on the roster from younger forwards like Arnaud Durandeau this season.

However, as the NHL has shown early this season, fighting still exists in the game, and losing Johnston leaves Matt Martin as the only experienced fighter on the roster. While players like Anders Lee and Scott Mayfield have dropped the gloves in the past, these two cannot reasonably be relied upon as "enforcers" in any way. Old-school hockey fans will tell you this is the surest way to put your young skill players in harm's way. After all, without a deterrent, why not take extra runs at guys like Mathew Barzal and Noah Dobson?

However, in 2022, Ohio State University professor of Human Sciences Michael Betz organized a peer-reviewed study in which he determined that not only is there zero evidence that fighting deters greater violence - but there is evidence that more fighting just leads to more violence. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence supports this idea as well. After all, if the Islanders were reliant on Johnston to protect Barzal, it would imply that those two were on the same forward line, which happened rarely, if ever.

The Islanders were hopeful that Johnston would develop into Matt Martin's replacement at LW4. However, what made Martin special was that he was more than just a fighter - Martin could play. Martin has often been out on the ice late in close games and has made a career out of being the biggest hitter in the league while simultaneously never racking up an inordinate amount of penalty minutes. Meanwhile, Johnston racked up nine goals and 24 points over 134 games with the Islanders, and his advanced stats did not impress either, as Johnston was routinely outshot and out-chanced when on the ice. With an inability to play the actual game of hockey at a high enough level, Johnston struggled when given the opportunity and was exposed with too much playing time.

The last attribute to consider- beyond the physical capabilities and ability to control the pace of play- is Johnston's value in the room. It is no secret that this Islanders team succeeds by being more than the sum of its parts and has become a family of sorts. In fact, the lack of roster turnover this past offseason caused some angst among the fanbase. But the organization has decided to go all-in on this roster for at least another season or two, and it is clear from their unwillingness to waive Johnston previously that the front office believed he was a big part of that tremendous chemistry. And seeing how quickly the Ducks claimed Johnston once the Isles did waive him, it is evident that the Islanders are not alone in this assessment.

But chemistry comes from winning, and winning comes from icing the best roster possible. Additionally, players with intangible value like that are relatively easy to acquire at low cost; reserving a roster spot for a leader in the room is a luxury that most teams cannot afford. And the Ducks, as a young rebuilding team, are a better fit for a player like Johnston, who can imprint his strong work ethic and confidence onto these younger players. And if you are of the old-school belief that fighting does deter violence against your young stars, there's no better place for Johnston to be than in Anaheim, looking after young stars like Leo Carlsson, Trevor Zegras, and Mason McTavish.

Winning builds chemistry, and the Islanders of recent seasons are proof of that.
Winning builds chemistry, and the Islanders of recent seasons are proof of that. / Jaylynn Nash/GettyImages

When Johnston was claimed by the Ducks, Isles GM Lou Lamoriello must have felt some level of vindication. After all, Lamoriello had avoided waiving Johnston for years, tacitly displaying an implicit understanding of his value around the league. Losing Johnston, a player groomed in this organization the last few years who had been a part of some special seasons, could not have been easy for the front office.

But the loss should not be (and thus far has not been) devastating for the Islanders. Losing Johnston allowed the team to keep Simon Holmstrom, Oliver Wahlstrom, Julien Gauthier, and Hudson Fasching on the roster - all of whom have more to offer this team than Johnston. Furthermore, if the lack of an enforcer beyond Martin becomes an issue at any point, players like Johnston are relatively easy to acquire, so the Islanders would be able to mitigate the problem.

Losing Johnston had to hurt the Islanders in the locker room. But successful teams and organizations have to deal with roster moves such as this, and the Islanders are no different. Fortunately, the benefits provided by Johnston are relatively easy to acquire elsewhere if needed, so the loss of Johnston should not be, and thus far has not been, problematic for the Islanders.