Who Should Ride Shotgun with Ryan Johansen and James Neal?
The Predators are still searching for a left winger to round out the first line.
When Ryan Johansen got traded to the Nashville Predators it was obvious he was going to be paired with former 40-goal scorer James Neal. Many also assumed that Filip Forsberg would be the left wing on that line but after watching that experiment in the Predators-Blackhawks game, it's clear the team's skill and effectiveness gets stretched pretty thin. So, who gets put in that open spot on the top line?
This was discussed heavily on the Predcast so I decided to do some digging on what has worked well in the past on similar lines because history can sometimes be a great predictor of the future. What I found was that when Johansen was paired with Nick Foligno (who plays a style somewhat comparable to Neal,) Cam Atkinson was more often than not the second winger. When Neal was with Evgeni Malkin (Johansen's comparable,) Jussi Jokinen was their partner-in-crime and put up more points than he had in the past three seasons.
When you compare Atkinsons' and Jokinen's strengths, some similarities start to pop out and you start to see why they were good contributors to their respective lines. Here are their Forecaster pages from The Hockey News:
Assets: Knows where to go in order to produce offense, and has a nose for the net. Skates well and provides energy for his team. Displays excellent hockey sense on the ice.
Flaws: Is quite undersized for the wing position at the National Hockey League level, so he must continue to prove his doubters wrong. He must become physically stronger.
Assets: Is skilled and polished. Rarely makes mistakes with the puck and is also a sound positional forward. Excels in shootouts and can line up on either side of center (and he even takes face-offs).
Flaws: Isn't very big or strong, and can be intimidated by bigger defensemen. Is considered a bit 'soft' by NHL standards. Lacks consistency in the offensive zone. Is a declining performer.
So, what Peter Laviolette should be looking for is a player who is positionally sound, skilled, good at skating, smaller, and possibly of a smaller stature. With that in mind, there are a few reasons why it would make sense both players found success on their respective lines.
1) Atkinson and Jokinen can create and continue plays.
When playing with skilled players like Geno and Joey, the amount of plays being made and the frequency of cycling the puck in the offensive zone is increased. Playmakers need wingers who are smart, skilled, and poised enough with and without the puck to keep those plays going and maintain possession. After all, even with his silky mitts Johansen can't make plays exclusively by himself on a night-to-night basis.
You look at possession numbers and Jokinen was in the top three in 5v5 Corsi-for percentage (min 100 minutes) on Pittsburgh's team when that line was in place during the 2013-2014 season. When playing on Columbus' top line alongside Johansen and Foligno, Atkinson's numbers weren't great in relation to his team but they were significantly better than Johansens'. Part of that is limiting the amount of broken plays on the ice.
2) They can get into position.
Johansen and Malkin are fantastic at finding their line mates when many—both on and off the ice—would not expect it. That comes from great passing and knowing where to look for their wingers during play. One thing Atkinson and Jokinen do exceptionally well is find open ice in scoring areas or in areas where they can bail out their linemates to prevent a turnover or a fast break.
3) Jokinen and Atkinson were able to take advantage of the time and space given to them by their sizeable and skilled center and bigger crash and bang winger.
Playing with players like Malkin, Neal, Johansen, and Foligno opens up a lot of space for a smaller and more skilled winger to operate; space they wouldn't normally have. A slippery player who can sneak into that open ice, make themselves available for the pass, and strike with their skill has the potential to be a very big threat. Atkinson is and Jokinen was (age is catching up to him) more than capable of putting the biscuit in the basket as they both have had multiple 20 goal seasons.
4) They have the speed to break loose.
The stretch pass to an open player for a breakaway is one of the more exciting plays in the NHL and as good at passing as Johansen is there is the opportunity for such a play. He needs a player who can break away from the opposing defenseman to do so more consistently, however.
Who fits the mold?
The most obvious name that comes to mind is Kevin Fiala. As a speedy and skilled player with a high hockey IQ, he is more than capable of doing everything on that list and that is a big reason why that line was so effective when the young Swiss player was on his game in Winnipeg.
At the same time, Fiala is still very young and, because of that, is prone to turnovers and (as the people on the Predcast put it) can disappear at times. While Kevin Fiala could eventually be a fabulous contributor on that line, the timing just doesn't seem right.
Mike Ribeiro has been tried on the left wing over the last two games but that hasn't really worked out that well. That can likely be attributed to the lack of forechecking being done and Ribeiro not being used to playing on the wing.
Another option could be Colin Wilson, who has shown good chemistry alongside James Neal in the past. While he isn't particularly fast or slippery, he isn't a hindrance to the cycle game, he is a solid possession player, and he can finish a play. Not only that but he has a lot of skill and many have assumed he just needs the time and space to be effective so maybe he could be the answer.
If Calle Jarnkrok is comfortable on the left wing, that is worth a try as well. He is really an all the above player when you look at those four reasons why Atkinson and Jokinen were so effective next to their linemates. He's incredibly smart and he has got the speed, skill, and slipperiness to boot. You also have to like that he plays both ends of the ice effectively; an added bonus.
Even though he's not guaranteed to ever play in a Predators uniform we might as well include Jimmy Vesey in that mix. Unlike the aforementioned choices, however, Vesey is an unknown commodity at the NHL level as he would be just coming out of the college ranks. What we can deduce from college hockey, however, is he is great positionally, he is a solid skater, and he can both start and finish plays.
As far as trade deadline players go, Jiri Hudler (UFA, 2016) would be at the top of my list if he is available. He brings a similar game to the table that Fiala does and he was absolutely fantastic next to Monahan and Gaudreau last season. There are also other options including Radim Vrbata and Loui Eriksson, who could be great fits, as well.
Who do you pair with Johansen and Neal?
|Kevin Fiala. He's young but he fits the mold perfectly.||103|
|Mike Ribeiro. I think that line will eventually get some chemistry.||7|
|Calle Jarnkrok. He knows where to be on the ice.||85|
|Colin Wilson. Our best option is injured right now.||115|
|Jimmy Vesey. He'll be worth the wait.||62|
|Trade Deadline Acquisition: Jiri Hudler||45|
|Trade Deadline Acquisition: Radim Vrbata||16|
|Trade Deadline Acquisition: Loui Eriksson||48|