Column: Ryan Johansen Makes Nashville Predators a Contender

Dec 12, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen (19) during the game against the New York Islanders at Nationwide Arena. (Photo Credit: Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo Credit: Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire)

To hear David Poile tell it, the Ryan Johansen trade has been 18 years in the making. Not literally of course, but this is the kind of player that the longtime Nashville Predators general manager has been hunting for since 1998.

“Today, in my belief, we accomplished something that we haven’t been able to do in 18 years of our history,” Poile told gathered media following the deal.

“And that’s to acquire a No. 1 center.”

After several weeks of speculation, the Predators sent defenseman Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Johansen, who had been in John Tortorella’s doghouse since the coach arrived in October.

Poile’s comments about centers may seem hyperbolic, but he’s not wrong when he says the organization hasn’t had much luck acquiring a high-end offensive center. They got 17 games and 15 points out of Peter Forsberg in 2006-07, but the Predators have long history of using second-tier options up the middle.

Mike Ribeiro has done an admirable job of filling in since last season, but when you look at the teams Nashville wants to compete with, he doesn’t matchup favorably at all. The Dallas Stars have Tyler Seguin. The Chicago Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews and the St. Louis Blues have more centers than they know what to do with.

Now the Predators have Johansen. The 23-year-old was in need of a change of scenery, and he’ll get that in Nashville. Johansen isn’t a miracle worker and he’s not going to change this team’s popgun offense overnight, but his arrival will have a positive impact on a team that has struggled to score goals this season.

Since 2013, Johansen has scored goals at a rate comparable to Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Taylor Hall. Over the past three seasons, Johansen has been among the top point producers in the NHL, sitting 31st in average points scored per game with 0.79. That’s not bad considering the Blue Jackets offense is ranked 19th in average goals for this season, while finishing 13th and 12th over the last two years, respectively.

It’s fair to say that the Predators haven’t ever rostered a center with this much skill, based on his scoring rates.

The trade looks particularly good for Poile because he was able to deal from a position of strength to fill a dire need. The Predators already have two All-Star defensemen in Shea Weber and Roman Josi, while Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are excellent top-four skaters as well. This core group is young — outside of Weber — and Jones has been playing on the team’s third pairing all season long.

He has too much skill to toil alongside Barret Jackman while playing sheltered minutes, and the Blue Jackets got what they needed here as well. Jones isn’t going to go to Ohio and turn them into a legitimate contender in 2015-16, but Johansen could have that kind of impact in Nashville.

By bringing in the former fourth overall draft pick, the Predators have opened up numerous possibilities on the line combination front. Ribeiro will be able to slide down to the second unit and Mike Fisher will be able to play with the third group. Those are much better fits for the two aging pivots.

Head coach Peter Laviolette will be working with two high quality forward lines, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he splits up Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg. Let’s assume that he will leave that line intact for the time being and check out what the lines could look like.

Colin Wilson Ryan Johansen James Neal
Filip Forsberg Mike Ribeiro Craig Smith

Laviolette will also have the option of creating a “super” line, of sorts, by flipping Forsberg and Wilson. A trio of Forsberg-Johansen-Neal could be difficult to contain if the chemistry is there, and that’s really the unknown in this equation.

We know that Johansen scores at a high-end rate and we know that he might not quite be at his ceiling at the age of 23. But how will he respond to this deal and adjust to new linemates? Laviolette coaches a more up-tempo style than Tortorella, which could benefit Johansen greatly.

When he is at his best, he’s slowing plays down through the neutral zone and creating space for his linemates with his reach and passing. He’s like David Krejci in this regard, and Johansen will have at least one strong finisher on his line in either Neal or Forsberg.

This isn’t an all-in move for the Predators. Johansen is a young player and the team has plenty of cap space to use on an extension. It is a move that makes Nashville a much stronger hockey team though, and one that could prove a tough out should they reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive season.


All rate statistics appear courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com, while all other stats are from NHL.com and are accurate through games played on January 6.

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