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What Ryan Johansen Brings to Nashville

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The last goal any member of the Predators scored on a manned net came over seven periods before the end of their season.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2013-14 season, the last year of his entry-level contract, Ryan Johansen scored 33 goals. That offseason’s contract negotiations were tense, but Johansen eventually signed a bridge deal and gave the 2014-15 Blue Jackets a 26-goal, 71-point season. That was his last full year with them. After the Blue Jackets relieved head coach Todd Richards of his duties to end the tailspin they began the 2015-16 season in, Johansen rapidly fell out of favor with new head coach John Tortorella. Stories about his health, his conditioning, and his work ethic spread.

At the same time, in Nashville, David Poile’s decision to extend Mike Ribeiro was already looking like a mistake. Filip Forsberg, who’d set franchise rookie scoring records the previous year, had completely vanished offensively. Colin Wilson, after a 20-goal season the previous year and an explosion of goals in the playoffs, was also missing. James Neal? Craig Smith? Mike Fisher was promoted to 1C in an attempt to spark Forsberg and Neal, with no success. Calle Järnkrok, who had been doing very well centering the third line, was promoted to 1C after Fisher, with even less success.

In November, the 2015-16 Predators set a franchise record for longest stretch of time without scoring a goal. They were shut out in consecutive games against the Blue Jackets, the Wild, and the Rangers. They also allowed eleven goals over those three games—ten of them into a manned net—as the defensemen overcommitted in an attempt to make something happen. The freefall continued through December. At the beginning of January, Poile traded Seth Jones to Columbus for the first-line center the Blue Jackets didn’t want anymore.

Ryan Johansen scored on his first shot as a Nashville Predator, and everyone had visions of him leading the team to glory. He’d had thirty goals! He’d had seventy points! And that was with Nick Foligno—what could he do with Forsberg and Neal? Poile had finally found the kind of center the team had never had!

Over the course of the rest of the season, Johansen set a 15- or 16- goal, 50-assist pace while playing on a line with Neal and Järnkrok. In the 2016-17 season he scored 14 goals and added 47 assists.

Where’s that dynamite 30-goal center Poile traded Jones for?

He might never have existed—and that’s okay.

Johansen is just as good as he was advertised to be. He only had one season with more than thirty goals, in a year in which he shot 13.9% after shooting 6% the year before and 9.1% the year before that. He also only had one season with more than seventy points. He didn’t have a reputation for a good defensive game. He drew a lot of criticism in Columbus for looking indifferent or, worse, cheerful. He didn’t have that “killer instinct” that real hockey players do.

He’s been a consistent 45-assist-a-year guy for each of the last three seasons. The only other players to have done that are Nicklas Bäckström, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, and Erik Karlsson. That’s elite company.

I would like to see Johansen shoot more, which would raise his goal totals—he averaged under two shots per game this season. However, he does play on a line with Viktor Arvidsson, whose shot generation is up there with the best players in the league. Asking Johansen to shoot more may be a lot like asking Bäckström to do the same. Johansen has a great shot, and the Predators are 14-2 this season when he scores, but he’s also a fantastic passer and a really generous teammate. If he continues playing with Forsberg and Arvidsson or similarly-gifted linemates—and if Forsberg solves his annual early-winter slump—I think we could see Johansen at least challenge Paul Kariya’s franchise record for assists in a single season instead.

Johansen helps make good things happen when he’s on the ice, even when he isn’t scoring goals directly.

This heatmap visualization, from HockeyViz.com, shows where the Predators shot from this year with Johansen on the ice. Red means more shots relative to league average—the deep well of red around the goal and in the circles, and the even deeper one in the slot/right circle, means a lot of offense is being generated. Some of this is obviously to the credit of players like Forsberg and Arvidsson, but Johansen makes it easier for them to be in the right place at the right time and gets them the puck once they’re there.

Here’s what the Predators’ offense has done without Johansen:

Not good. Pretty much nothing is happening in the low slot, which is prime goal-scoring territory. It’s a spot the whole team struggles to reach—there’s a tiny bit of blue there even in Johansen’s on-ice heatmap—but it’s worse when any other center is on the ice.

Johansen’s greatest strength is his passing and his playmaking. He is a consistent sixty-point player despite his low goal totals because of how he plays. It isn’t just a question of luck. Looking at Ryan Stimson’s passing data for Johansen shows that he’s among the best forwards in the league at contributing to plays occurring in high-danger areas:

He’s also very, very good at consistently setting up plays. Secondary assists can sometimes be almost random, but Johansen regularly works to make good things happen.

In fact, the only aspect Stimson tracks in which Johansen isn’t in the top 25% of forwards in the league is in terms of how many shots he takes. Fortunately for all of us, his current linemates both shoot a lot. His game complements Arvidsson’s and Forsberg’s very nicely:

(A quick note—Stimson’s Passing Project is still a work in progress. I think as more time is recorded for Arvidsson, a developing player, his game will appear more balanced and stronger.)

Arvidsson and Forsberg both like shooting the puck. Forsberg shoots it from dangerous areas; Arvidsson shoots it from everywhere. Both of them are great to watch on zone entries. Johansen’s strengths—in opening space and finding the right spot, making it easier for everyone else to do their jobs—go nicely with Arvidsson’s determination and Forsberg’s strangely graceful physicality. It’s a good line.

Not only is it a good line, but having Johansen allows everyone else to slide down on the center depth chart. When the Predators have been able to use Fisher and Järnkrok at 2C and 3C, the second and third lines have been better. Fisher isn’t a 1C. Järnkrok isn’t a 2C. They’re both good hockey players who bring valuable things to the team, but they’re better when they can play to their strengths instead of having to play above their level. Fisher is a good but aging two-way player who shouldn’t be relied on to generate primary scoring. Järnkrok is a fantastic defensive player with some offensive upside who can’t be relied on to generate primary scoring. When they’re allowed to do those things, the whole team improves.

When Poile traded for Johansen he wasn’t necessarily trading for a goalscoring superstar. What he was looking for in a 1C was someone who would make everyone around him better, and Johansen has delivered.