NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Predators stunned the NHL not once, but twice in 2016 by trading away a top defenseman. Ryan Johansen is the big center landed with Nashville's first big trade, a move almost forgotten in all the wake of the deal that brought P.K. Subban to Music City.
With Nashville waiting for either Anaheim and Edmonton in the Western Conference finals, the deal for Johansen is looking like one of general manager David Poile's more masterful swaps.
"Well, it was a big addition at the time," coach Peter Laviolette said Tuesday of adding Johansen. "Pieces like that are hard to come by. He was young. He's 6-foot-3. He's big. He's skilled. He's talented. From an organizational standpoint the depth of what we needed, it made a lot of sense."
The Predators hoped Johansen could be the top line center the franchise has been searching for since its inaugural season back in 1998-99. Poile sent young defenseman Seth Jones, who had been paired with captain Shea Weber, to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Johansen on Jan. 6.
Looking back now, it's a move overshadowed by Poile's other trade last June when he shocked the league by trading Weber to Montreal for fellow defenseman Subban.
But Johansen immediately moved onto the top line where he helped the Predators reach the playoffs last spring. They beat Anaheim in seven games only to lose to San Jose in seven in the second round.
Now 24, Johansen tied with linemate Viktor Arvidsson with 61 points in his first full regular season in Nashville, and he also handed out a team-high 47 assists. Only 10 players in the NHL had more this season.
"I think Ryan's had an excellent year and just the growth for me in him as a person and as a leader as somebody who wants to be that guy, to make a difference and make sure a team moves in the right direction, it's been noticeable this year that he's really trying to take ownership," Laviolette said.
Predators forward Colin Wilson called the trade another great move considering Nashville needed a big No. 1 center and got it in Johansen.
"He's been great for us," Wilson said. "In a game that's gotten big and fast, it's nice to have him there, and he's been producing well for us and that line in general wasn't here three, four years ago. So to have him and constantly be producing has certainly helped."
Johansen outplayed Chicago captain Jonathan Toews as Nashville swept the Blackhawks in the first round. In one moment as they fought for the puck, the 218-pound Johansen stiff-armed Toews to the ice to grab possession.
"He's obviously really a really big guy," linemate Filip Forsberg said of Johansen. "And he can move well too, and I think just one of those guys that can do it all."
Johansen also outplayed St. Louis center Paul Stastny in the second round and now is winning 55.7 percent of his faceoffs.
Johansen ranks ninth this postseason with seven assists behind Evgeni Malkin, Leon Draisaitl, Erik Karlsson, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, T.J. Oshie and Ryan Getzlaf. He only has two goals through 10 games, but he scored the biggest yet Sunday with a backhander to finish off a 2-on-1 early in the third period for the game-winner as Nashville eliminated St. Louis in six games.
That was exactly what Nashville hoped for in trading for Johansen, who called scoring that goal a "good feeling."
"But coming in here, I just believed in myself, and I'm going to continue believing in myself that I can get it done," Johansen said. "I've got a lot of work to do to keep playing at my best."
There is one area where Johansen might need a little help. He celebrated that goal with a big fist pump. Asked if Johansen was imitating the coach's celebration of a big goal earlier in the St. Louis series, Laviolette said he wasn't sure.
"It wasn't very good if it was," Laviolette said.
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