Before I start, I want to introduce myself. If you haven’t met me already, my name is Jeff. I live in Nashville and I’ve been a Preds fan for as long as I can remember. My family and I have been season-ticket-holding citizens since the inception of the team, and my dad, who grew up a Devils fan, is the reason I got into the sport. Spending my nights watching hockey with him is a memory I cherish. My mom and a few people here at On The Forecheck got me started on my writing journey, so, just like my dad, I wouldn’t be here without them. On The Forecheck has been a landmark for me in my writing journey, and to be here with this fantastic crew is a dream turned into reality.
Anyway, enough of the sap. Speaking of a dream turned into reality, Ryan Johansen is finally starting to look better. Before this season, Johansen was struggling to produce much of anything. His play was lackadaisical, and fans took notice. His shifts were filled with mindless gliding up and down the ice with minimal urgency to retrieve the puck. His awareness was poor, and watching him—whether on the television or in person—was excruciatingly painful. He just seemed out of it.
Jump ahead to the Nashville Predators’ miracle run this season, and Johansen looks reinvigorated. His play has picked up, and he’s finally tracking down pucks with a purpose. His physical play, especially along the walls, has improved tremendously. The battles that he used to lose are now won through smart body positioning and choices with his stick.
It wasn’t long ago that fans called for Johansen to be moved down in the lineup. In the 2019-20 season, Johansen was forced to play with the likes of Colton Sissons and Colin Blackwell on the top line. He wasn’t gelling with them, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Both Blackwell and Sissons are best in a checking role, and Johansen, a naturally talented passer, won’t perform up to snuff with players that aren’t goal scorers. He even got the luxurious opportunity to play with Austin Watson—another guy who isn’t a goal scorer and was widely regarded as one of the worst players, if not the worst player, on the team. For parts of the year, Johansen’s linemates were the exact opposite of what he needed.
However, one thing that also reared its ugly head was the downfall of the JOFA line. It’s something I’ve written about in-depth, but to summarize, they were not good. Their expected goals for percentage (xGF%) per Evolving-Hockey was second-worst among lines that Johansen played on for more than 30 minutes. They were seven percentage points below average, at 43.07%, which is not something you want to see from the line that’s widely considered the top line. They did keep their heads above water with a shot attempt percentage of 52%, but they weren’t generating anything high-danger. It’s not too hard to understand why, either, considering Arvidsson is a run-and-gun volume shooter with a knack for blasting clap bombs from the faceoff dot on the rush.
Arvidsson’s regression to the mean last season in terms of shooting percentage took a toll on Johansen’s numbers as well. Pair that with Forsberg’s career-worst shooting percentage, and it began to cause a problem for everyone involved. Considering the JOFA line wasn’t working out, former head coach Peter Laviolette and current head coach John Hynes were forced to constantly switch up the lines. Players getting injured consistently and the top players not shooting well is not a recipe for success in any capacity. It continued throughout the postseason, where the Predators lost in the play-in round to the Arizona Coyotes. It was a disheartening end to a season filled with so many bumps along the road.
Fast forward a season later, and Johansen looks like a changed man. He’s using his body significantly more, taking advantage of smaller opponents on the boards and finally skating with some urgency, as I mentioned earlier. The guy looks revitalized, but what exactly stoked the fire?
First, playing him with players that can shoot the puck always helps. As I mentioned, he’s a passer by trade. With Arvidsson falling off the face of the planet, it became necessary for another sniper to come in and fill his role. Enter Eeli Tolvanen—the Finnish forward with an absolute rocket of a slapshot and a deceptive wrister. Put him with Forsberg, and boom, you have a trio that has been fantastic over the past months, at least when they were healthy.
While Johansen’s expected goals above replacement (xGAR) went down from 0.8 to 0.6, his regular goals above replacement (GAR) went up from minus-2.2 to 2.1, again per Evolving-Hockey’s model. It’s most likely due to Tolvanen’s prominence on the power play, and at even strength as well. There’s also the fact that Forsberg was playing at a point-per-game pace before his injury.
All this to say, keeping #92 with great shooters is essential to him playing well. I like Duchene playing with Forsberg and Tolvanen more than Johansen, but neither option is terrible. They’re just different players stylistically. Even if that was the case, Johansen could still be highly effective if played with guys like Calle Järnkrok and Luke Kunin, who have come into their own this season in the goal-scoring aspect of the game.
Keeping Johansen with guys who can put the puck in the back of the net is key number one, with the second being his ice time. In 2018-19, the year he scored 64 points to lead the team, he averaged 19:33. Many players were injured, so he got more ice time than usual, but the point still stands.
Johansen and other guys like Duchene benefit far more from playing around 20 minutes a night rather than 17-18. This has been a trend since Coach Hynes came into the fray. He has significantly reduced the top forwards’ ice times, and as a result, their numbers have stagnated or declined. Figuring out which guys work well with each other is just one piece of the puzzle. The next is playing them an ample amount of time and long enough to get more than just 2-3 chances per game.
Johansen in the Playoffs and Final Thoughts
Another positive thing is entering frame shortly: the playoffs are here, and that’s where Johansen seems to thrive the most. He enjoys playing under the spotlight, and as the number one center for the team, he gets to do just that in the most significant event in the hockey world. He finds another gear come playoff time, and this Preds team could really use it. Going up against a fantastic Carolina Hurricanes team, they’re going to need everyone to contribute.
Overall, Johansen has proven to be a good player. Though his underlying numbers might not be the greatest in the aggregate, he has shown massive amounts of improvement in both effort and efficiency over the last several months. The most important part of the year is coming up, and Johansen needs to justify his spot in the lineup and his contract. The Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft is also coming after the playoffs are finished, and there is a possibility that one of Johansen or Duchene could be exposed in the hopes of dumping their massive cap hits. If Johansen wants to be a member of this squad and not be exposed to expansion, now would be the perfect time to show even more improvement.