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!