Nashville Predators Ryan Johansen takes on the challenge of being top-line center vying for the Stanley Cup.
Hockey isn’t football. There’s no exact equivalent for ‘The Man’ in hockey- ‘The Man’ being the franchise quarterback, whom the team lives and dies with the ball (or puck) in their hands (on their stick). But if we were to translate the term to the sport of hockey,
But if we were to translate the term to the sport of hockey, ‘The Man’ could be very well applied to the number one center position of a club. Just as we see the Lombardi Trophy continually hoisted by teams with elite, franchise guys under center, Lord Stanley’s Cup rarely goes home with a team who doesn’t have ‘The Man’ centering their top line.
When the Nashville Predators traded their 2013 fourth overall draft pick Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for their 2010 fourth overall draft pick Ryan Johansen, the Predators got their ‘The Man.’ The trade exchanged a future cornerstone defender for a player who altered the landscape of the Nashville forward corps and shape-shifted the franchise into championship contender material.
Johansen, 23, is currently playing in the second Stanley Cup Playoffs of his five-year career and is experiencing his first playoff series lead after Friday night’s 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. His elite puck skills and size (6’3, 218-lbs) work through an almost casual on-ice gait, creating a deceptively skilled forward who has gathered sixty or more points in three of his five seasons.
Critical to the Nashville Predators current playoff desires, however, Johansen has shown the ability to play at a high level when great players are expected to be great- the postseason. Following the 2013-14 season, the then-Blue Jacket averaged a point-per-game over a six-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, marking 2 goals, 4 assists, and tying for team leader in points during Columbus’s memorable but losing effort.
The postseason productivity took virtually no time to strike in Game One at Anaheim, as Johansen marked a primary assist 35 seconds into the series, giving the Predators as good a jump out of the gate as any playoff road team could hope to get. Though the assist served as the only point on the night for the centerman, his presence dictated the pace of the game in favor of Nashville.
Johansen registered a +1 plus/minus rating during his 18 minutes and 31 seconds on ice, quarterbacking the top line to a strong performance and feeding sniper James Neal to a game-leading 9 shots. More importantly, Johansen took 12 of his 15 faceoffs against Ryan Kesler, the centerpiece of the Anaheim’s shutdown forward line and Frank J. Selke Trophy nominee- an award which goes to the best defending forward in the league.
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With Nashville’s top line absorbing the focus of Kesler and company, the second and third Predator scoring lines were able to face less defensively-oriented forwards, allowing each line to notch a goal and ultimately resulting in a winning trio of netted pucks. This effective scoring depth is something else that came to Nashville with Johansen- the young player’s success at the top spot has allowed the core of centers to shift down and play against opposition which favors the Predators, effectively calibrating the offense and maintaining the sense of a constant scoring threat on the ice.
A place where Nashville centers still managed to struggle on the night was in the dot, registering an abysmal 39% faceoffs won. Here Johansen was the only Predator center to go positive on the night, registering a team-best 53% for skaters in gold who took over 5 draws (Cody Bass, playing at right wing, won four of his five draws).
Moving into the game there were some swirling questions concerning Joey’s motor and a perceived lack of discipline- critics pointed to a number of unwarranted and unnecessary penalties down the late stretch of the regular season. Friday night in Anaheim concluded with a clean penalty minutes column and a motor looking like it was running on all cylinders, all night.
Ryan Johansen has looked the part of the true number-one center which Nashville has never had in their franchise history. He may very well be the piece the Predators need to turn the corner- the type of piece any team needs if it hopes to make a run at the Cup. And at his age, surrounded by a rising youth movement, he may be ‘The Man’ who brings Smashville to the top tier of the NHL for years to come.