Johansen filling a need, but Predators still waiting to rise

Ryan Johansen is a very young and extremely talented player. But there is plenty about his play and his attitude that remains pretty frustrating for coaches.

Ryan Johansen has come as advertised to Nashville, but the Predators haven’t exactly taken off since landing arguably the most dangerous offensive player in team history.

The Predators are 6-7-1 since they dealt 21-year-old defenceman Seth Jones to Columbus for Johansen, losing three of four ahead of a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.

It’s not the bump they were hoping for when they made the trade.

“On balance getting a No. 1 centre for a defenceman, with already a strong defence, should improve the Predators hopefully a lot,” Nashville general manager David Poile said this week. “Record-wise, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Johansen has 15 points in 14 games since the trade, including five points in the past three outings. Poile said Johansen is been everything the Predators hoped he would be, with good hockey sense and the ability to create scoring opportunities.

And at 23 years old, there’s still room for him to grow.

Poile, the team’s general manager since its inception in 1997, said the Predators have never had a player quite as gifted offensively as Johansen.

Johansen had a career-high 71 points for Columbus last season, but struggled early this campaign and became, perhaps unfairly, the face of the Blue Jackets’ woes. The club started the season with eight straight losses before eventually firing head coach Todd Richards.

Columbus sought long-term help for its wobbly defence by dealing Johansen for Jones. Nashville, by contrast, has almost always had a sterling defence but coveted a top-line centre.

The Predators didn’t want to disrupt their blue line by trading Jones, but Poile had to give up the talented fourth-overall pick in 2013 to land the offensive punch his club lacked.

“I couldn’t find that way with any other team and I couldn’t find that way with Columbus and that’s why we eventually acquiesced to make that deal,” Poile said.

The trade would not have happened if the Predators didn’t have young defenders Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm ready to step up.

Nashville knew that the pair of 25-year-olds were ready for more, and since the trade their ice time has risen. Ekholm is averaging more than 21 minutes since the deal — up from 18 per game — while Ellis has regularly pushed past the 20-minute mark, including upwards of 24 minutes in three of the past four games.

The duo have become a valued second pair behind Roman Josi and Shea Weber. Josi, with a team-leading 38 points, has emerged as a dark horse Norris Trophy candidate this season.

“Knowing that we had a top-four of Josi, Weber, Ekholm and Ellis allowed us to do the trade,” Poile said. “If we had probably one less of those four the deal would never have been done.”

Ekholm, especially, has proven a revelation for Nashville. The Predators scooped him up with the 102nd overall pick in 2009.

An effective puck-mover with good size, the six-foot-four, 215-pound Ekholm had 10 points in 12 games last month, replacing Jones on the club’s second power-play unit. Like Ellis, he boasts top-end possession numbers; the Predators have the puck approximately 56 per cent of the time with him and Ellis on the ice, a good deal higher than the team’s mark without them.

Nashville signed Ekholm to a six-year extension in October.

The Predators have been a factory for high-end defencemen, from Weber to Josi to Ryan Suter, who left to join Minnesota as a free agent in the summer of 2012. Poile credits his scouting staff, but also the luck of the draw.

The club had no intention of selecting a defenceman at the draft in Newark two and a half years ago. But when forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin rose, the Predators opted for the best player available in Jones.

They eventually turned him into Johansen, the type of forward they were searching for initially.

Nashville is scoring a bit more since the trade, but is giving up a bit more too.

Struggles in goal haven’t helped. Pekka Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, is stumbling through perhaps his worst NHL season. His .903 save percentage ranks amongst the lowest at the position.

Hanging on tenuously to one of two wild-card spots in the West, the Predators are seeking a deeper drive in the playoffs this spring. They were knocked out in the first round last year after missing out on the post-season entirely the previous two seasons.

“It’s not good enough,” Poile said. “We have to be better.”

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