Coming into the 2016 season, the Predators had a very established center corps. Ryan Johansen was to lead a group consisting of Mike Fisher, Mike Ribeiro, and Calle Jarnkrok. Fast forward one year and both of the Mikes are gone. In their place are Nick Bonino, acquired in free agency, and Colton Sissons, who successfully made the jump from the AHL Milwaukee Admirals to the Predators.
It is well established that, after losing Ryan Johansen to injury, the Predators’ center depth is ultimately what prevented them from winning the Stanley Cup. How should this group of centers expect to do this season?
Expected role: First-line center
2016-17 regular season stats: 82gp, 14g, 47a, 61pts, 55.9 corsi%(EV).
2016-17 playoff stats: 14gp, 3g, 10a, 13pts.
The undisputed number one center, Ryan Johansen enters his second full season as a Predator already having proved his Columbus nay-sayers wrong. Acquired in a one-for-one trade with Seth Jones headed to Ohio, Johansen has already won four playoff series since leaving the Blue Jackets. The anchor of one of the best lines in hockey, his passing skills have unleashed Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. The three members of the “JOFA” line averaged 60 points each, hitting an even 180pts total for the season.
When the playoffs rolled around, Johansen’s game hit a new high. Although he was forced out of the playoffs early with a freak leg injury after game four against the Anaheim Ducks, either he or Pekka Rinne was the team’s MVP. Other than nearly averaging a point per game, Johansen dominated opposing centers. He made future Hall of Famer Jonathan Toews look like a fourth liner in the sweep against the Blackhawks, dominated the Blues, and, despite some creating a narrative of Ryan Kesler getting in Johansen’s head, all the stats said otherwise.
Although his first experience as an RFA with the Blue Jackets was far from pleasant, Johansen cashed in on his performances in gold by receiving an eight year, $64 million contract. This was the biggest contract awarded in Nashville Predators history, and he is worth every cent.
Stars are great players, superstars make those around them great. There was not a single Predator that performed worse with Johansen than without him. To have him part of this organization for the next eight years is a blessing. Moreover, he just turned 25 years old, so his best days are ahead.
Johansen will continue to play first line minutes for the Predators for as long as he remains part of this organization, which is thankfully a while. It would shock me if the JOFA line would be broken up to start the season, so expect him to be paired with Forsberg and Arvidsson for the foreseeable future.
Expected role: Second line center
2016-17 regular season stats: 80gp, 18g, 19a, 37pts, 46.4 corsi%(EV).
2016-17 playoff stats: 21gp, 4g, 3a, 7pts.
Heralded as the second-line center that the Predators need, Nick Bonino joins the Predators after winning his second Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two generational talents, Bonino was never going to be more than a third-line center in Pittsburgh.
Now, joining Nashville, Bonino will hope to have more impact than in Pittsburgh. His numbers are not that much better than Calle Jarnkrok’s, having scored only six more points in the regular season and having a worse corsi percentage at even strength. Perhaps the corsi can be equated to the Penguins as a whole having poor possession numbers, but, when you have Crosby and Malkin drawing all of another team’s attention, Bonino still should have performed better.
Nevertheless, despite being a good third-line center for his career, Bonino is getting his chance at making a difference for the Predators on the second line. With the departures of Fisher and Ribeiro, the opportunities for Bonino will be there.
In particular, Mike Fisher’s absence opens up a big chunk of time on the power play for another center. While Bonino will be battling off Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons for those minutes, one would have to believe that Bonino has the inside track to the job. Furthermore, when he was used on the power play, Bonino provided a net front presence that the Predators lacked this past season.
It will certainly be interesting to see if Bonino can step up into the second-line center role. He has yet to prove that he can handle that load, and if his regular season and playoff statistics tell any tales, it is that Bonino is pretty average. Hopefully it becomes a situation like that of Colton Sissons’ circa the Stanley Cup Final, where all Bonino needs to shine is a little more opportunity to do so.
Expected role: Third line center
2016-17 regular season stats: 81gp, 15g, 16a, 31pts, 50.8 corsi%(EV).
2016-17 playoff stats: 21gp, 2g, 5a, 7pts.
In the most hotly debated decision by David Poile of the summer, the Nashville General Manager decided to use his final protection spot in the expansion draft to keep Calle Jarnkrok instead of winger James Neal. While that debate is not going to be reopened in this preview, Jarnkrok now has the additional pressure of having to prove Poile right. Neal was certainly a fan favorite and Jarnkrok, despite loved by some, just does not have the same personality as Neal.
By this point in time, Jarnkrok is a fairly well-known quantity. He is a flexible forward that can be slotted pretty much anywhere in the lineup, he will bring some speed to whichever line that he is on, and he will be responsible in his own zone.
Looking forward, it feels as if Calle Jarnkrok has hit his ceiling. He is going to be a fine player in whatever role he is placed in, but will not be a difference maker. For a third line center, that is perfectly okay.
Expected role: Fourth-line center
2016-17 regular season stats: 58gp, 8g, 2a, 10pts, 43.6 corsi%(EV).
2016-17 playoff stats: 22gp, 6g, 6a, 12pts.
Unlike Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons has shown an ability to make a difference and come through in the clutch. After losing Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher to injury, Peter Laviolette put Sissons on the second and first lines in the last eight playoff games. The payout was four* goals and two assists in eight games, including a hat trick in the Western Conference Final series clincher. Ultimately, he finished the playoffs with 12 points over 22 games despite only scoring 10 in 58 during the regular season.
While some of his statistics may be lacking, especially his even strength Corsi, no Predator was bounced around the lineup as much as Colton Sissons last season. A flexible forward like Jarnkrok, he was sometimes the fourth-line center, sometimes a fourth-line winger, sometimes a second-line center, and really was everywhere between. To not have consistent line mates in one’s first season making the jump to the NHL is going to make putting up reliable numbers difficult.
Nonetheless, like Bonino, Sissons did drive towards the net when on the ice. At 6’1” and 200lbs, Sissons actually has a bigger frame than some people may expect. Overall, when in the offensive zone, he did a great job at helping find space and opportunity for him and his line mates.
This next season, Sissons should continue to grow and develop. Even if Vladislav Kamenev or Frederick Gaudreau make the roster out of camp, Sissons has the versatility to slot in on the wing. Consistency is going to be key for Sissons this season. So long as he can iron out that part of his game, the Predators are going to have an extremely reliable fourth-line center that is not just some grizzled veteran that is used to shut down opposing opposition, but rather a young player who moves the puck into the opposing end of the ice.