Ryan Johansen well remembers his first days at center for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“There were a lot of lessons to be learned,” Johansen said, smiling. “A lot of lessons.”
Sean Monahan was the sixth pick of the 2013 NHL draft, taken just after the Carolina Hurricanes selected forward Elias Lindholm. At 19, he was a rookie center for the Calgary Flames, a boy among men.
“Last year was really different for me,” Monahan said. “You’re coming from junior where you knew you could go out there and kind of do whatever you want to and get away with it. In the NHL, you have a lot of responsibility. You have to bear down every game or you’ll be exposed pretty quickly.”
The lessons and responsibilities are being learned now by Canes centers Victor Rask and Riley Nash, to varying degrees. Nash is 25 and has played 124 NHL games. Rask, 21, is a rookie and has played 14.
Regardless of age or nationality – Nash is Canadian, Rask from Sweden – they find themselves on the ice competing against players they have admired and once followed. It can be intimidating facing off against a John Tavares of the New York Islanders, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings or Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks.
“One of hardest parts, I think, is getting used to the fact that you can play with these guys,” Nash said. “Sometimes, in your first 20 or 30 games in the league, you’re cautious and don’t want to get beat and give up too much space. When you’re confident, you’re up in their face.
“The faster you can get over that and realize this is what I’ve been doing my whole life and this guy is just another hockey player, the better off you are. Then it’s just go and get the job done.”
Rask came to training camp this year trying to make the team. On Monday, he was centering a line with Eric Staal on the wing as the Canes topped the Flames 4-1.
The Canes’ Jay McClement, a veteran center who sits next to Rask in the locker room at PNC Arena, has been impressed with the way the Swede has handled himself in an unexpected role once center Jordan Staal was lost with a broken leg.
“Victor doesn’t play like a young guy,” McClement said. “He shows a lot of poise out there, the poise of a veteran, and that’s not something you can teach. He has confidence, he makes plays and has played really well so far.
“He’s strong on his skates, he’s definitely earned everything he’s gotten and you can see he’s getting even more comfortable and scoring more. It’s fun to watch young guys like that.”
Johansen, 22, was listed at 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds when he was taken by Columbus with the fourth overall pick of the 2010 draft – three spots ahead of the Canes’ Jeff Skinner – and spent time on the wing before going to center. He’s now 223 pounds and an emerging star center in the NHL.
“My first year I had trouble,” Johansen said. “I was pretty lanky and skinny, and I got overpowered a lot. I definitely noticed a huge difference in my game from gaining some weight and some strength.”
Nash and Rask have added weight and become stronger players. Rask is thick in the upper body and appears bigger than 6-2 and 200 pounds, and Nash is an athletic 6-1 and 200 pounds.
“There’s a lot of responsibility on a centerman,” McClement said. “You have to be the quarterback sometimes. You’re always down low for the most part in the defensive zone and taking faceoffs. Faceoffs are a tough thing as a young guy before you get your strength up.”
Rask has won 54 percent of his draws and Nash 52.9 percent. Against the Flames, Nash’s faceoff win to start a second-period power play resulted in a quick slap shot by Justin Faulk and a goal that gave the Canes a 2-1 lead.
Asked about the challenge faced by young centermen in the league, Canes coach Bill Peters quickly noted, “It can overwhelm you at times if you let it.”
Peters said as long as the center is getting the defensive job done and winning important draws, he’ll continue to play. Rask and Nash have done that.
“It’s a tough position to play in the National Hockey League and a reason you see a lot of guys start out as wingers and then move back to their natural position at center,” Peters said. “I have a lot of respect for those young guys who can come in and play down the middle.”
Peters called it an ongoing learning process for Rask and Nash, just as it was for the Blue Jackets’ Johansen.
“I know I can be effective in the offensive zone when we have the puck,” Johansen said. “But for me it’s more about being in the right spots, working back to my position down low, being hard on pucks and making smart plays in my own zone so I’m a very effective player on both ends of the rink.”