Ross Johnston knows what is at stake, and that is why Tuesday’s preseason opener was so vital for the 29-year-old enforcer.
The writing has been on the wall since last season, when despite the Islanders suffering a number of injuries throughout the lineup, Johnston could not get into game action more than 16 times.
Even when the injuries in question came on the fourth line, where his game fits like a glove, others — including AHL call-ups — got the nod over Johnston.
Now, as he enters the second season of a four-year, $4.4 million contract, it does not take an expert to know that Johnston is fighting for his spot with the Islanders.
Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden was his first chance this year to show he can be more than just an enforcer.
He took a four-minute minor in the first period for roughing Vincent Trocheck — retaliation for Trocheck’s knee-to-knee hit on Matt Maggio.
Islanders left wing Ross Johnston was given a four-minute penalty for his hit on Rangers center Vincent Trocheck during their preseason loss. Robert Sabo for NY Post
Then he fought Matt Rempe in the second period, getting him back for a hit that laid out Isaiah George.
A solid game for an enforcer. Not so much for someone trying to be something else.
“I love the fight,” Islanders coach Lane Lambert said. “Certainly he does fill a role for us and he does his job. I don’t know if you ever love a four-minute penalty.”
Even if he is not going to shed the label of enforcer, Johnston does not want a repeat of last season’s playing-time situation.
“I think it’s easy to tell you that [not playing] doesn’t get frustrating and you always want to stay the course, but it’s just not true,” Johnston told The Post in the run-up to Tuesday’s match. “We’re 23 competitive humans that got to the NHL because we’re exactly that: competitive. When you’re not in the lineup, you’re not happy and you are frustrated.”
Islanders left wing Ross Johnston hits Rangers center Vincent Trocheck Robert Sabo for NY Post
George, who made his preseason debut, missed the end of the first period following the hit by Rempe but returned to the game. He finished the night with 14:40 time on ice, skating alongside Ryan Pulock.
“I thought his first game’s a great learning experience for him,” Lambert said. “Learned to get back to pucks a little quicker and move the puck a little quicker. Every young player goes through that. I like the fact that he gutted it out and played through what he had.”
Alexander Romanov (shoulder surgery) participated in Tuesday’s scrimmage after being held out of Monday’s, though Lambert was noncommittal on whether No. 28 will participate in any preseason action.
Kyle Palmieri (undisclosed) remains out of practice and is still day-to-day while skating on his own.
Corey Schneider, who was in the Islanders’ organization for the last two seasons, told NHL.com he plans to retire.