David Poile chuckled when he considered how quickly things can change.
“If you had called and asked Columbus about the availability of Ryan Johansen in October, they would have laughed at you,” said the Nashville general manager.
Well, it’s January, and Johansen’s now a member of Poile’s Predators, the result of a remarkable, in-season U-turn by the Blue Jackets organization, which went in a matter of weeks from believing Johansen was a cornerstone of their franchise to believing he had to go elsewhere.
In his place, the Jackets now have towering blue-liner Seth Jones, the Texas-born defender who was the No. 1 prospect of his draft year until he was overtaken by Nathan MacKinnon, and ultimately by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin.
Jones wasn’t available either in October, but when Poile saw the opportunity to land the type of centre the Predators have never had, he chose to act.
Jones has all the tools to be an outstanding NHL defenceman, minus perhaps the Chris Pronger mean streak that many teams would love their top blue-liner to have. The Jackets used to have a young No. 1 centre, and now they have a young defenceman expected to develop into a first pair defender instead.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, by contrast, aren’t sure if they have either of those two commodities, which means while they may still be ahead of Columbus in the NHL standings, they’re lagging behind in terms of acquiring the elements necessary to become a winner.
On Wednesday night, the two teams clashed at the Air Canada Centre, playing a dreary 60 minutes in what seemed like a Second Division match if the NHL had such a thing. At the beginning of the game there were empty seats, and by halfway through the third there were lots of them in every section.
The distance between the condition of these two teams today and either team being a contender seemed unimaginably far, and the 3-1 victory by Columbus was noteworthy only, really, in that it was the first since acquiring Jones for Johansen last week.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a week, a lot of emotions. But I’m happy to be here now,” said Jones afterwards. “First win since I’ve been here. Tonight we played a good 60 minutes.”
The 21-year-old skated 24:52 in the game, which represents the upside for him after leaving a playoff contender for the worst team in the NHL. He has played more than 22 minutes in all four games with Columbus, ice time he just wasn’t going to get with the Preds in the near future.
He notched his first point as a Blue Jacket on the game’s first goal, a tip-in by Boone Jenner.
“Everyone in Nashville deserved what they got and the minutes they got. It’s a deep D core, which is really rare in the league now,” he said. “So it is nice to come here to Columbus and get a larger role. They told me I’m going to get a little more opportunity here, and I’ve been seeing that.”
With Jones, and two first-round defence picks from last year’s draft, Zack Werenski and Gabriel Carlsson, the Jackets have the prospects for an elite blue-line corps some day. Add in Ryan Murray, the No. 2 pick of his draft year and a player finally getting to play after dealing with a series of injuries, and Columbus has a new blueprint.
“We’re ecstatic,” said head coach John Tortorella. “We wish (Johansen) nothing but the best in Nashville, he’s a good kid, but to get a right-handed defenceman with some guys coming in the pipeline later, we’re really excited as far as building it from the back end.”
If there’s a cautionary tale for the Jackets with regards to this new plan, it resides on their own roster. After all, they’ve gone down this exact path before. Four years ago, Jack Johnson, then 25, was acquired from Los Angeles to be the anchor of the Columbus defence for the next decade.
“We’ve now got a very good defence,” said then Columbus GM Scott Howson, who made the deal.
As with Jones, the cost was a slightly older, frontline forward, Jeff Carter, who wasn’t performing to anywhere near his capability with the Jackets, and wanted out.
Carter went west, reacquired his scoring touch and has won two Stanley Cup rings with the Kings. Johnson has gone on to be a good NHL defenceman, but at 29, he hasn’t achieved stardom and the Jackets, well, they’ve moved backwards again after seeming two years ago to be on their way to be a solid club.
“Yeah, I remember getting traded like that,” said Johnson after the Columbus win. “I don’t know if it was the same for him, but I didn’t know anybody. That was the hardest part. Getting to know your teammates, getting to know your way around the city. Playing hockey is the easiest part.”
A 15-1-1 conclusion to last season meant Columbus, and Johnson, came into this season expecting to win a lot of games. Instead, the season’s been a disaster, the coach got fired, the top forward was traded and a new ace defenceman is in the fold.
In other words, deja vu all over again.
“The whole season’s been tough,” said Johnson, who has participated in only 18 playoff games in his nine-year career. “Not just the last bit. When you have a season like that, you know trades are coming. You just don’t know if it’s going to be sooner or later. We don’t know if there’s going to be more coming, but with the position we’re in, there’s always changes.”
The belief in Columbus has to be that Jones will be a Norris Trophy winner, a star, and Tortorella thinks he already sees the signs.
“I think he’s going to be a real calming influence as we keep growing our team here,” he said. “He’s a no-maintenance, quiet kid, but also a confident kid. I watch his ability to get up the ice, his passing ability, his puckhandling ability – that’s a good deal for this club, for right now, and for future years as a 21-year-old, right-handed shooting defenceman.”
Tortorella and Johansen clashed over a number of issues after Tortorella replaced Todd Richards, creating the atmosphere that preceded the trade. The fiery coach says he plans to be careful and patient with Jones.
“I’ve made a ton of mistakes when you ask for too much, too early, particularly at that position,” he said. “We need to handle him with care, and when there are some struggles, maybe you pull him back in some situations and just try and get him going in the right direction and not knee-jerk with him.
“It’s a thinking position, with the reads these guys have to make so quickly in our game, we have to be careful. We’ve piled some minutes on him, he wants it, he can handle it, but with a team that’s struggling right now, we have to be really careful.”
This has been a shocking change for Columbus, and for Jones. You get the sense everyone involved is taking a deep breath and re-calculating the future.