My truth about the Nashville Predators Ryan Johansen

I’ve thought hard enough and long enough about how to approach the subject of Ryan Johansen. You see, most of the Preds fans that have trolled me on the internet give me constant flack for being hypercritical through the majority of this 2016-17 season. I’ve never backed down, and constantly reiterated what I was saying, which was NOT that he “sucks” or anything even remotely close to such crude and inaccurate appraisals of his obvious talent. What I have said was that he was too soft a player to be considered the “big” number-one center the team traded young stud defenseman Seth Jones for. Ah… Seth Jones. This is where it all starts for me. David Poile’s decision to pull the trigger on such a major deal in the hopes he could jumpstart an anemic Nashville offense, and give Columbus a fixture on the blueline for the next decade. I loved Seth Jones. I appreciated how strong Roman Josi’s play was, and I loved Ryan Ellis when 90% of all Preds fans thought him to be too small, and a defensive liability. I liked Mattias Ekholm, but Seth Jones… there was the true prize. He was tough, mobile, and had skills with the puck. I knew Poile had to give to get, but what he was getting in return was a guy who had a monster third pro season in Columbus, and then saw his numbers ever so slightly disintegrate as the team had little success with him in that top pivot spot. Never mind the fact that he hamstrung the team on a deal that would pay him 6M in the final year of a three year term (which also happens to be this season), but Poile would be forced to pay, because losing Seth Jones for an 18-month rental would almost be the equivalent of Washington’s GM George McPhee giving up a young Filip Forsberg for an old Marty Erat, a trade that will haunt McPhee until his dying days.

So, the regular season ended and fans continued to support the theory that 14 goals and 47 assists were enough, when coupled with the fact that his second-half linemates, Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson had blown the roof off of Bridgestone Arena, and became one of the most dominant lines in the National Hockey League. 14 goals were a far cry from the 33 that Johansen had scored three years prior, and the two years in between were totals of 26 and 14, so while the slide had leveled out this season, it was painfully obvious that Johansen was becoming a pass first pivot. My arguments always surrounded his play without the puck. You were not going to send him into battle for a loose puck and expect to see him come out with it. No, Johansen rarely found himself anywhere near the walls, and almost never behind either net, happily settling somewhere in open ice, after peeling off from an opponent in the hope of a turnover that would give him and his admittedly excellent vision a chance to move the puck to one of the heavy lifters that flank him. One of those heavy lifters standing about 8 inches and 40 pounds less than him. Yes, Arvidsson’s heart in Johansen’s body would produce perhaps the league’s best and richest hockey player, whereas Johansen’s heart in Arvidsson’s body would be playing Friday night beer league hockey in Kamloops.

The team played a horribly uninspired road game against the St. Louis Blues to finish up the confusing, uninspired regular season. The team clung to the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference, and would meet the Chicago Black Hawks in round one of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. The company line was that there were far more positives over the course of the second half of the season than negatives. No player, to a man, was intimidated by Chicago. Bring it on, they said. Skeptically, few gave them a chance. I didn’t make predictions, but I did reply to people who picked Chicago in 6, by saying that if that were the case, I’d *prefer* they ended it in 5 because (a) I had NO intention of watching the Smug Hawks glad-handing my team of choice at Bridgestone Arena, and (b) I could find better uses for the money than watch another disappointing season come to an inevitable end.

But, a strange thing happened. The guy I had maligned for the past 8 months suddenly became the player David Poile had hoped to acquire. Two way, tough play meant frustration of the highest order for Black Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. Epic battles including forearm shivers and crushing body blows always saw Johansen the victor, and Toews the victim. Additionally, the line (heretofore known as the JOFA line) seemingly brought its play up a level higher, as if that was possible. Throw in three other lines that did virtually nothing wrong, and almost everything right for four games. A Preds defense that limited Chicago to few serious chances in each game, and a Finnish goaltender not named Juuse Saros (a 21 year old rookie, who was seemingly annointed by the “braintrust” (read: fanbase) as the goalie of the PRESENT, not the future.) With Pekka Rinne playing sensational hockey (a number of nationally vocal pundits said it was his best hockey in a few seasons, but they forgot November of 2016, earlier this season, when Rinne was annointed NHL’s First Star/Goaltender Of The Month.) It was a messy December that brought Rinne back to Earth, and set the stage for many of the Saros believers to continuously harp on the subject that our franchise goalie was now past his peak, and needed more and more rest, to the tune of an old-folks home and a rocking chair. Sure, Rinne was taller than Saros, but his reflexes had atrophied to the point where he’d have to be replaced by the only man on the team who actually looks up to Viktor Arvidsson!

But, back to Johansen, and the Predators that eventually SWEPT the Chicago Black Hawks. What a performance. What a 180 degree turnaround. And, what’s funny is hearing all the writers and broadcasters saying that Johansen had truly upped his game to a level never seen by Preds fans prior to this series. Oh? Really? Now you want to validate what I’ve said all along? Where were you when these illiterate assholes were giving me grief 24/7, misquoting my comments, and telling me that I knew nothing about the sport. I’m firmly on THIS Ryan Johansen bandwagon, but I reserve the right to come up with a new nickname to replace the one I gave him in November, “Butter.” — Today I prefer to call him the “Anti Rick Nash” because he’s brought his post-season game to a new unworldly level, and it’s miles above his regular-season game, whereas Nash seems to go in an opposite direction when the post season rolls around.

I have a theory. In baseball, you play 162 games divided almost entirely into 3 and 4 game stints in a particular stadium, home or away. In hockey you play half the amount of games but aside from a rare back-to-back/home-and-home scenario, you play a different team every night you’re in action. The playoffs come along and you have a “Best-of-seven” that pits you against the same opponent, with only the occasional venue switch. What Johansen did was lock into Toews and make his life miserable. Each night of the regular season, Johansen flipped a coin as to whether he’d show up, or not show up. Sixty-one points in the regular season. An 82 game regular season. Johansen was a participant in all 82 games, but was held off the scoresheet in 43 of those games. While this doesn’t mean Johansen was “bad” in all of those games, the team’s record in those games was 14 wins and 29 losses (In games he recorded at least a point, 27 wins, 12 losses.) Ryan Johansen has bought in, he’s all in, and he’s executing the game plan to the max. Coach Laviolette has noticed, the broadcasters have noticed, the writers have noticed, and I’ve noticed. I’ll still hate having given up Seth Jones for a long, long time, but I LOVE this incarnation of Ryan Johansen for the time being. I hope he has 12 more wins left in him, because you throw in my already unwavering belief in guys named Arvidsson, Forsberg, Fiala, Sissons, Watson, Aberg, Fisher, Ellis, Josi, Subban, Rinne, with some immediate in the moment lust for Matt Irwin (move over Stu Grimson, this guy does more in 11 minutes than most third pairing defensemen) and Harry Zolnierczyk (every team needs a guy who can do nothing more than show his gratitude for the privilege to play in the NHL with the kind of spirit that leaves it all on the ice for however long he’s out there on a game-by-game basis) and you have a team that looks unbeatable at the best time of the year to look unbeatable.

Could it all come to a crashing end in St. Louis? or Edmonton? or Anaheim? or Washington? or Pittsburgh? … sure, but there were very few who gave Nashville even the slimmest of chances against Chicago… but then Ryan Johansen decided he had to prove he was tougher than butter… and he has!

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Onto Game 4 in Nashville

It’s highly doubtful anyone could document their belief that the Nashville Predators would be looking to sweep the Chicago Black Hawks at Bridgestone Arena tonight. In most circles, if there were to be a 3-0 edge in games to this point, it would be Kane, Toews and Co. holding all the cards as the inconsistent, erratic Predators sought to stave off elimination. But, the shoe is on the other foot, and the Preds, who seemed to shoot themselves in the foot at multiple turns over the course of the season, find themselves just a scant few hours from having a few days off before beginning round two of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. St. Louis, who have a 3 games to 1 lead over the Minnesota Wild, are the team most likely next in line, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the series may end up going the distance, as Minnesota has underachieved in the first three games, and the Blues have overachieved, and it’s time for the pendulum to swing to the North.

If the Preds can close this thing out tonight, they may get as much as a week to ponder their next challenge. That would be good news for Craig Smith, and Colin Wilson, but it would be a little tougher on a guy like Pekka Rinne, who has thrived on the post-season to this point, and is clearly the team’s Most Valuable Player after three contests.

Time to heap some praise: from A (Aberg) to Z (Zolnierczyk) the team has been playing its’ best hockey of 2017. Having been critical of star players (Ryan Johansen) and marginal ones (Matt Irwin) over the course of the regular season, it needs to be documented that everyone seems to be firing on all cylinders and I couldn’t be more positive about the team as a whole if I tried. Johansen has been very good on both sides of the redline, and despite being one of only two forwards (the other was Jarnkrok) who did not register a shot-on-goal in game Three, has created enough of a presence as to neutralize Jonathan Toews and give Chicago fits both offensively and defensively. On the blueline, Irwin has been a third pairing revelation, making every decision he makes look like the right one, and correctly gauging when to back up and when to pinch in. I saw enough of Matt Irwin’s play as a San Jose Shark, to know the guy was an AHL depth guy at best, and while Stu Grimson, Darren McFarland, and company have been praising this guy all season long, he’s saved his best for the post season and has been one tenacious MF when on the ice with his partner Yannick Weber.

Other notes include the “coming out party” for Kevin Fiala, who is showing exceptional hand/eye coordination, scoring perhaps the most important goal for the Preds this season. Patience, magic, and skill are the watchwords for the entire Nashville team, and Fiala is the embodiment of that sentiment. Hopefully he has turned the Laviolette corner and will not find himself back in the chateau bow-wow moving forward. We also have to see how creative Poile can get with Vegas Knights GM George McPhee, as any one of Jarnkrok, Neal, Sissons, Watson or Fiala all look like they’d be huge additions to the soon-to-be formed expansion franchise. Aberg and Zolnierczyk… the Admirals Club… both are laying it all on the line every shift, and both have produced prodigious results. Harry got a HUGE goal in game two, and Pontus has been tenaciously dogging Black Hawk forwards with every second he’s on the ice.

Almost 5pm. Time to hop in my car and head over the bridge to the stone… Here’s to a clean game, a clean sweep and a chance to see our Nashville Predators make a little history. And, in other games, I’d sure love to see the Rangers grab a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens. I’d be thrilled if Columbus could live to see one more day against the Penguins, and the upstart Oilers do to the Sharks what the Sharks did to them in Game Four. Hockey be with you, my friends.

Will the Nashville Predators surprise the Chicago Blackhawks?

I suppose the short answer to my title question is, “No,” the Chicago Blackhawks will be prepared and ready for a skilled Nashville team to come into the United Center and play a game strong enough to grab two points on any given night.

Then, the converse question, “Will the Chicago Blackhawks surprise the Nashville Predators?” The answer to that, for me, leans towards “Quite possibly.” You see, this “Magic 8-Ball” approach to prognostication of the NHL playoffs is downright ridiculous. The parity of the league is such that on any given night, any team can win against any other. However, once 82 games are played and playoff rankings have been applied, pundits seem obliged to decide who’s REALLY in, and who’s on their way out. Nashville holds no chance against a mighty Chicago hockey team that goes for its fourth Stanley Cup in just eight years. Daunting challenge for an eighth seed team that could not muster much momentum heading into the post-season, although Chicago themselves lost their final four regular season games.

I can’t pick a winner. I’m a Preds season ticket holder. I have seen the ups, I have felt the downs, and I know that based on the season series between these two clubs, it’s a no-brainer for Chicago. But, I also know the Predators are a tricky team to judge. If this were a seven game series against any of the NON-playoff teams, I might go with one of them. After all, we saw Winnipeg and the New York Islanders give this team fits in the final week, with Connor Hellebuyck and Jaroslav Halak each looking like the second coming of Georges Vezina over the course of their contests vs. Nashville.

To beat Chicago:
1. Determine which team is going to battle. There are a number of players who may or may not be getting the nod in the opening game. It may seem unimportant, but the fourth line could be any number of six guys, and it needs to be nailed down. But, let’s start with the first line. With Forsberg and Arvidsson flanking Johansen over the final couple of months of the season, we saw the two wingers score some of the more determined goals of the season, and for all his soft defensive foibles, Johansen made some tremendous passes to spring these guys into action. However, there was a game when James Neal replaced Arvidsson, and with Arvy on line two, Craig Smith had a revelation in his game. Balancing out the attack and having Arvidsson play with Jarnkrok doesn’t bother me in the least. Of course Forsberg and Johansen, when neutralized, are liable to give the puck away far too much. Their defensive game must be sharper. What to do with Captain Mike Fisher, who is sorely needed in the lineup, but where? Assuming your four centers are Johansen, Fisher, Jarnkrok and Sissons, you are saying that veteran Vern Fiddler is either hurt, or just not good enough to crack this lineup, and I’m FINE with that. Fiddler played 20 games after his acquisition, and chipped in a single goal and no assists. While he did play with grit and won some faceoffs, having either Fisher OR Sissons in that role is a major upgrade. Fans joke about “regular season Colin Wilson,” and “playoff Colin Wilson.” There appears to be a difference. At least, based on the past two post-season efforts by Nashville, Wilson’s game appeared to elevate over his October through March play. This season saw Wilson record his career high in assists in a single season (23) and his goal production doubled from 6 to 12, though far off the 20 goal pace he provided in 2014-15. The enigmatic Smith is often lumped into the same category as Wilson, as each receive 4M paychecks to underachieve for large portions of the season. On a four year point decline (52-44-37-29), Smith saw his goal production dip to 12 this season after three consecutive 20+ campaigns. However, his play over the final few weeks of the season was strong and there’s no reason to think he would be excluded from the Game 1 lineup vs. Chicago. Kevin Fiala is a player who has proved to be a highly skilled forward that has shuttled in and out of Coach Laviolette’s doghouse, without suffering any real public humiliation. With Fiala, it’s been a numbers game, and of course with GM David Poile’s tinkering, adding depth guys like Fiddler and P.A. Parenteau around the deadline, Fiala sat further and further on the edge of the bubble. He was one of a handful of players who over the course of the season found themselves in the press box a game after actually scoring a goal. With Fiala, youth is on his side and he will be a part of the organization (hopefully) for the foreseeable future, but will he crack the opening lineup against the Hawks? I hope so. Parenteau, on the other hand, has been limited to just eight games in a Nashville sweater, and honestly, he’s been far more invisible than good or bad. A skilled scoring forward with liability issues in the defensive zone, it’s hard to say that beyond his NHL experience he brings more to the table than Fiala, who appears far more creative and therefore “higher risk/higher reward.” Will Lavy eschew veteran presence for youthful exuberance? Fact is, for Chicago, the youth thing is totally working and it would suck to watch Parenteau plod through a game with Fiala in a suit eating finger food in the visiting team suite, while Ryan Hartman (21 years old, 19 goals) and Nick Schmalz (20 years old, 28 points) supply depth scoring for Chicago. Throw a cantankerous Austin Watson, a veteran enforcer Cody McLeod, a career minor leaguer Harry Zolnierczyk, and the Milwaukee call-up, Pontus Aberg in the mix, and you have sixteen forwards fighting for twelve jobs.

Forsberg – Johansen – Neal

Smith – Jarnkrok – Arvidsson

Fiala – Fisher – Wilson

Watson – Sissons – ?

McLeod – Fiddler – Zolnierczyk – Parenteau – Aberg

On defense, the picture is slightly less murky:

Ellis – Josi

Subban – Ekholm

Irwin – ?

Bitetto – Hunt – Weber

I suppose if Weber is healthy, he steps in with Irwin, and Bitetto and Hunt are the guys on the outside looking in. But, if Weber is still hurt, do you go with grit and toughness (Bitetto) or the more mobile puckhandler (Hunt)?

Of course, in goal, we will be treated to Pekka Rinne, with maybe a side of the firepower of Pekka Rinne. While, Juuse Saros coninues to gather steam as the heir apparent to the crease in a couple of years, impatient fans appear ready to anoint him the starter immediately. Fortunately, Nashville’s brain trust know they have to place their faith in Rinne with an eye towards the future down the road apiece.

2. Create traffic in front of Crawford. Feet don’t fail me now. The Predators have been a terrible passing team this season. Unfortunately, this is a “stat” that goes un-kept throughout the league, but on any given night we have been forced to watch this team shoot themselves in the foot with ill-conceived breakout passes, poor zone attempts on the power play, and an inability to get the puck to a shooter in position to put the puck on net. Compound this by the number of times a puck handler has gone into the offensive zone all alone with no support rushing towards the net to gather up a potential rebound off an initial shot. Deposed Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter may not have been able to lead his troops into post-season battle this year, but he operated of over three quarters of the season without his all-World goaltender, Jonathan Quick. He did, however, team that lead the NHL in possession for the fourth consecutive season. If only a portion of that could rub off on Nashville, they would become a lethal, dominating team in this league. Giving the puck carrier an option (or TWO) when making decisions would go a long way towards furthering this team’s offensive capabilities. We’ve seen it dozens of times this season, and in seasons passed, where the opposition puts two or three men in the vicinity of the Preds crease as the shooter is about to unleash an attempt on goal.  With bodies the size of Johansen’s, we should see an increase in possession time, as well as second and third efforts on net, creating more scoring. Tiring to watch a lone Predators puck carrier cruising into the opposition’s zone as his four skating teammates are peeling off for a line change, and the ensuing players are willing to stand back at the blue line while waiting for the inevitible change in possession.

3. Special teams need to be far more special. Because you can’t expect a team with Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Hossa and Toews to just lay down against their potentially seriously weaker opponents in this area. While both the power play and the penalty kill have had moments of superiority this season, those moments have been inconsistently few and far between. In fact, when all was said and done, the Predators could muster no better than 15th and 16th on the PK and PP respectively. “Hard Outs” on the penalty kill are necessary at the most critical of junctures. Too many times saw Predators indecision resulting in the opposition keeping a puck in the zone at the blue line, when a more forceful pass or clearing attempt would have spelled relief for the unit on the ice trying to kill the penalty. As for the power play, can we see a concerted effort to enter the offensive zone with some speed and a plan to not put three guys behind the net and two up at the points? Or, that nifty trick of a box and a guy in the middle of the opposition’s PK box, with the objective to try to break into the defense’s “inner sanctum” and get the puck to a guy who has four men surrounding him? Seriously, I’ve been at wit’s end trying to figure out who believes these systems work? They don’t work on any other team.  In fact, they are rarely tried on other teams because they just make no sense. Don’t even get me started on the three defensemen, two forwards setup the team tried earlier last week on a couple of failed five on three possessions. Smarter decisions, quicker decisions, and movement of the feet are keys to making the special teams work against a very smart, well-disciplined Chicago team.

 

Starting Thursday we have a potentially epic seven-game-series against the chief rivals of all things Nashville hockey. Blackhawks will be on their game and ready to show Predators and their fans what the make up of this year’s Blackhawks team is about. It’s up to the Preds to crash the party, steal some thunder, and position themselves right where most fans thought they’d be at this time in the season: On the way to a destiny meeting with the Stanley Cup.

Preds begin playoffs with dreaded lower body injury. Soldier on.

While most injuries are veiled in disguise, and rarely disclosed, it would be tough not to acknowledge the team’s injury heading into the playoffs. You see, the Nashville Predators continually shot themselves in the collective foot over the course of the 2016-17 season, with the latest bullet fired with less than a minute to go in a game vs. Winnipeg that closed out the regular season.