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Will The Real Ryan Johansen Please Stand Up?

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Just two years after being traded to the Predators for Seth Jones, Ryan Johansen is simultaneously the Predators’ most important and most puzzling player.

NHL: Nashville Predators at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, Ryan Johansen made his All-Star game debut. Hosted in Columbus, the fans adored their center who scored 33 goals the previous season as he wore a scarlet and gray Ohio State football jersey during the shootout. That 2014-15 season, Johansen hit the back of the net 26 times. The next season, John Tortorella, who carried a reputation for being hard on young players, took over as head coach after a rough start to the season. He and Johansen did not mesh well, with Tortorella benching Johansen numerous times and making his criticism of Johansen’s fitness public. Fast-forward a few months, and Johansen was boarding a plane to his new home of Nashville.

Now, since becoming a Nashville Predator, Ryan Johansen has been instrumental to the success of the team. There is little doubt that the Predators’ top center was critical for getting into the Stanley Cup Finals last season. He not only unleashed the potential of Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, but also provided a physical presence when matching up against two-way centers such as Jonathan Toews and Ryan Kesler. Moreover, he’s a dreamboat for those who love advanced statistics: since joining Nashville, his has ratings in Corsi and Fenwick percentages of 54.5% and 54.0% respectively.

That being said, many pundits point to Ryan Johansen when identifying the most disappointing player of the Predators this season. In each full season since his 26 goal campaign for the Blue Jackets, he has only mustered 14 goals. This season, with only five goals through 44 games, Johansen is on pace to be a former 33 goal scorer that could barely muster just 10 only four years later. On top of that, he was 21-years-old when he scored 33 times.

At 25-years-old, he should be entering his prime and improving. His goal scoring trend shows the opposite. What could be causing this?

The common defense is that, since joining Nashville, Ryan Johansen is not scoring as many goals because he is passing so much. Some of his primary linemates in Nashville have been Forsberg, Arvidsson, and James Neal; all goal scorers in their own right. Johansen set a career high in assists last season and still finished the season with 61 points, only two behind his 33 goal season and ten behind his 71 point career high from when he scored 26 goals. His shot totals have gone down since his time with the Blue Jackets. In his 33 goal campaign, he shot the puck 237 times on net. This season, he is on pace for 123 shots. Maybe some of this decline is that, this season, there have been so many injuries that Scott Hartnell is playing with Johan-

Wait a second…

Columbus Blue Jackets v Winnipeg Jets
Ryan Johansen, Scott Hartnell, and Nick Foligno celebrate scoring a goal against Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.
Getty Images

The line of Scott Hartnell, Ryan Johansen, and Nick Foligno lit the NHL on fire back in 2014-15. In fact, this was the season that Johansen made the All-Star game and had 26 goals. Moreover, Foligno had 31 goals while Hartnell potted 28. Foligno and Hartnell only scored three fewer goals than Forsberg and Arvidsson last season, with Johansen being the primary center for both lines.

Once again, there is no question that Ryan Johansen is one of the Predators’ most talented and critically important players, but all of this begs two questions: will Johansen ever score goals at that same 2013-15 rate again, and is Johansen becoming a better hockey player?

Winnipeg Jets v Nashville Predators Getty Images

First, Ryan Johansen is only shooting 8.5% since joining Nashville. That’s a low number. In contrast, Filip Forsberg has a career shooting percentage of 12.5%. In his 33 and 26 goal seasons, Johansen shot at 13.9% and 12.9% respectively. He has not shot above 10% in any season before or since. In an article with The Tennessean back in November, former Columbus linemate Nick Foligno spoke with Adam Vingan about how great Johansen’s shot actually is. “He’s got offensive ability like not a lot of guys in this league. … I know that he’s a type of guy that sometimes can just get himself in those positions to score, but then looks for that pass. It causes him some troubles.”

However, looking into a crystal ball, it’s hard to see Johansen getting back to those goal scoring ways if he does not improve his shooting or increase his shot volume. Seeing how many goals Foligno and Hartnell scored compared to Forsberg and Arvidsson playing on Johanson’s wings, there should not be a major difference in the amount of shots produced by Ryan Johansen. Yet, there is that difference, and it’s been a consistent difference. For whatever reason, Ryan Johansen is no longer a great goal scorer.

This leads to the second question of, if Ryan Johansen is not scoring at the same rate and is not showing that he will again, is he a better or worse hockey player? Have other parts of his overall game improved? A quick look through basic statistics will show that Ryan Johansen has blocked fewer shots and delivered fewer hits since his time on the Blue Jackets, but this is largely due because his team has the puck when he is on the ice. You can’t block a shot if it’s on your own stick, and you can’t hit someone who doesn’t have the puck. It was already mentioned that his even-strength Corsi-For has been a dominating 54.5% since joining the Predators. That is a sharp improvement from his time in Columbus, when Johansen carried a less-than average 49.1% Corsi.

Hockeyviz.com
Yes, Ryan Johansen has drastically improved his possession numbers with the Predators in comparison to his 26 goal season for Columbus in 2014-15.
Hockeyviz.com

Moreover, in Columbus, Ryan Johansen immediately became the best center on the team without a strong, veteran presence at center. The next-best center after Johansen was Brandon Dubinsky, who never was half the player Johansen was in Columbus. However, upon arriving in Nashville, Johansen finally had that veteran-mentor, perhaps the best one in the entire league: Mike Fisher.

“The Mike Fisher effect” can be seen in Johansen’s faceoff numbers, which jumped an astonishing amount since his time with the Blue Jackets. He was already a good face-off winner (51.8%) in Columbus, but under the tutelage of Mike Fisher, a well-known face-off guru, that soared to 54.5%. Furthermore, Johansen’s two-way game has improved, a hallmark of Mike Fisher. Johansen has even been getting some time on the penalty kill, which he has excelled with. In the recent 4-3 overtime loss to the Lightning, Johansen made some outstanding plays killing off Nick Bonino’s third period penalty. He also has become much tougher in the corners. Just ask Jonathan Toews.

More importantly, Johansen has begun to blossom into a leader. Aside from being present at a number of team announcements over the last two seasons, he has become a leader off the ice. Recently, he was named an assistant captain of the Predators, showing the trust that David Poile and Peter Laviolette have in the young center.

All things considered, is Johansen then a better player than the 33 and 26 goal scorer he used to be?

It’s not the answer you want to hear, but the answer is: it’s complicated.

Edmonton Oilers v Nashville Predators Getty Images

There is a premium on scoring goals in the NHL. On its face, any team would rather have a 33G-30A center on their team than a 14G-47A center. At this point, Johansen’s shooting percentages from his 33 and 26 goal seasons have to be seen as outliers. Once again, he has never shot above 10% in any season other than those two. Johansen should probably no longer be considered snakebitten in his current season, but rather that he over-performed (from a shooting perspective) in those first two seasons.

However, Johansen has changed in other ways. His puck possession metrics are elite in every way. His face-off numbers have improved, he has become the two-way center that Tortorella failed to create, and Johansen has developed a presence in the locker room. He does shoot the puck significantly less than he used to, and the argument of him shooting less due to having more productive wingers is probably moot.

There’s not a clear answer. However, leave with this: Johansen used to be a multi-dimensional scorer and playmaker. Now he’s a multi-dimensional playmaker and two-way center. Which would you rather have on your team?

Poll

Is Ryan Johansen a worse, better, or the same player now compared to his time in Columbus?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Worse
    (127 votes)
  • 54%
    Better
    (284 votes)
  • 21%
    The Same
    (111 votes)
522 votes total Vote Now