WINNIPEG — Roman Josi doesn’t remember the moment when a coach came up to him and asked if he might consider giving defence a try.
Nor does he recall the reason for the change, though he remains firmly in favour of it.
If you’ve watched the smooth skating blue-liner lead the rush or join the attack at any point during his Nashville Predators career, news that Josi spent ample time in minor hockey playing forward will come as no surprise.
That’s not a knock on Josi’s ability to take care of things in his own end, as he’s not a guy who is reckless defensively.
But his ability to get up the ice so effortlessly and make things happen is a big part of what has made him so fun to watch during the past 12 seasons as a full-time member of the Predators.
“I was a forward until I was 13 or 14,” Josi said during a recent visit to Winnipeg. “I think it affected my game. I was always a little more offensive minded and once I switched back to D, that was my game, to play more offensive. It fits my game, to come from behind and see everything in front of you. That fit my style and those early days as a forward definitely helped me.”
Josi narrowly lost the Norris Trophy vote to Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar last season after racking up a career-high 23 goals and 96 points in 80 games.
His offensive production is down slightly this season, but he’s not far off a point-per-game pace (eight goals, 28 points in 35 games) while averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time and sitting second on his team in scoring behind Filip Forsberg (who had a hat trick on New Year’s Eve).
Josi isn’t concerned about his point totals and he’s been able to draw on his past experience of dealing with heightened expectations (both internally and externally) that came with capturing the Norris Trophy during the 2019-20 campaign.
“Obviously, it was a lot of fun and it was a special year, a lot of things went my way,” said Josi, talking about 2021-22. “There’s a lot of things that come into play. After the year, I try to set some new goals and focus on my play. It’s hard to compare years and I did that a little bit when I won the Norris. You put a lot of pressure on yourself the next year, trying to improve and play even better. Every year represents a different challenge.
“I think I can still play better too — there’s a lot of room for improvement. It’s up to us leaders to play well. Your best players need to be your best players for the team to be successful. I’m part of that.”
Josi broke into the NHL at a time when the Predators’ defence corps featured Shea Weber. Having someone like that to lean on was incredibly valuable and also shaped his own leadership style as he transitioned into the role of captain.
“It was awesome to learn from (Weber) over the years. We became really good friends over the years and I started playing with him,” said Josi, who was chosen in the second round (38th overall) of the 2008 NHL Draft. “As a young kid, you come in and watch what other guys do, how guys behave and how guys are off the ice and in the gym and everything. He was a perfect example. He was a real pro. Every time he stepped on the ice, he worked as hard as he could. It was such an amazing influence for a young kid to see that. All you want to do is try to be like that.
“Sometimes you reflect a little bit. I remember coming up from Milwaukee (of the American Hockey League) and that was such a learning year for myself, coming over from Europe and playing a different style here, with the smaller ice and everything. There were a lot of things I had to learn and go through. Once you come to the NHL, as a defenceman you try to find your game a little bit and you try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Over the years, I’ve just kind of evolved and that’s made me the player that I am now.”
On Dec. 21, Josi set a franchise record for points in a career, passing David Legwand, and those numbers will continue to rise with the Swiss blue-liner under contract through the 2027-28 season.
“His offensive instincts are really impressive. He’s one of those players that sees plays that other guys don’t and also has the ability to make plays that other guys can’t, just at a consistent level,” said Predators head coach John Hynes. “The other thing is for a guy that’s as offensive as he is, he cares about both sides of the puck. The reason he’s such an elite player, he has the ability to be an elite player, but I think it’s the consistency level, night in and night out, that he can impact the game in multiple ways.”
The appreciation for Josi’s game isn’t limited to his coaches and teammates either.
Not only did he take a run at his second Norris Trophy last season, but Josi ended up finishing sixth on the ballot for the Hart Trophy for league MVP.
“I hate coaching against him. I love the guy and watching him play. He’s worth the price of admission,” said Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “He leads the rush. Most defencemen are giving that first pass, he wants the second pass and he wants to go. He’s an elite player, an elite skater.
“It’s the top line you better be aware of. But Roman drives the bus back there, man. He’s a special player.”
Minnesota Wild captain Jared Spurgeon appreciates Josi’s ability to use his biggest assets in all three zones.
“It’s the skating ability that he has,” said Spurgeon, who first played against Josi in the American Hockey League during the 2010-11 season. “He’s so shifty on the blue line as well, but he seems to be leading the rush and then he’s the first guy back as well. He obviously has a high hockey IQ. He knows when to jump up and get (involved) in those opportunities.”
The Predators, 15-14-6, are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture in the Western Conference, five points out of the second wild-card berth heading into Sunday’s action.
They’re minus-13 when it comes to goal differential, so they’ll need to get on a roll if they want to avoid missing out on the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign.
“Definitely a little up and down. We’ve had good stretches and stretches that are not very good,” said Josi, who has 570 points in 795 NHL games. “We’re trying to find that consistency.”
The Boston Bruins remain the gold standard in the NHL and still haven’t lost on home ice in regulation this season (stretching the point streak to 21 games going into the 2023 Winter Classic at Fenway Park against the Pittsburgh Penguins), but the Carolina Hurricanes are in hot pursuit.
The Hurricanes have won 11 consecutive games and have recorded at least a point in 17 games (15-0-2), setting a franchise record in that category.
On New Year’s day, the Canes took home a 5-4 shootout win against the Devils. Martin Necas scored a goal, Sebastian Aho collected one goal and one assist. On his end, Brent Burns picked up an assist on the man advantage, which gives him a team-leading 14th power play point.
The recent run, which included a victory in the first head-to-head meeting of the season, allowed the Hurricanes to move past the Devils for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
During the 10-game winning streak, the Hurricanes have only trailed for a grand total of six minutes and eight seconds and featured four shutouts — two from Antti Raanta and two more from Pyotr Kochetkov.
Even with Freddie Andersen on the shelf with an injury since early November, the netminding from Raanta (who has won six consecutive starts) and Kochetkov, who is tied for top spot in shutouts (three) and is second in the NHL in both goals-against average (1.94) and save percentage (.928) while posting a 10-1-4 record.
Speaking of injuries, Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour recently told reporters that left-winger Max Pacioretty could return to the lineup at some point during the next 10 games.
Pacioretty, acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights during the off-season, has been out of the lineup after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in August.
Offensively, the Hurricanes have been led by centre Martin Necas, who has 15 goals and 35 points (including 11 on the power play) in 36 games.
Andrei Svechnikov leads the Hurricanes in goals (19), Sebastian Aho has 28 points despite missing seven games due to injury and the off-season deal for Burns has translated into some additional offence on the back end and a spark for the power play (where Burns leads the team with 13 points with the man-advantage to go along with his 26 total in 37 games).
By going 11-4 during the month of December, the Wild are keeping things interesting in the Central Division.
The Dallas Stars have won four consecutive games and lead the Jets by five points (with Winnipeg holding a game in hand), but this recent stretch has allowed the Wild to keep the Jets in their sights, sitting three points back while going 2-0 in the season series and holding a game in hand.
“At the start of the year, we were just giving up too many chances,” said Spurgeon. “We’re a structured team and that wasn’t the way that we were playing. To get back to that was big. It was tough to start the year like that, but there was a lot of year left to go, so to be able to correct it and start playing better hockey right away was key for us.”
The Wild recently got forward Ryan Hartman back and he’s helped give the lineup a bit more balance and punch up front, chipping in three goals and four points in six games since his return on Dec. 18.
After dealing with a number of injuries to key pieces, the Avalanche got top centre Nathan MacKinnon back on Saturday night. MacKinnon was held without a point, but created some dangerous chances, finishing with three shots on goal and seven shot attempts while taking 25 shifts for 22:19 of ice time. … Lots of chatter about Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller and his outburst during Thursday’s game against the Jets, slamming his stick on the crossbar behind Collin Delia as he encouraged the netminder to make his way to the bench in favour of an extra attacker. Some see it as entirely unnecessary, while others simply view it as an intense guy showing emotion during what has been a tense and turbulent season for the Canucks. Miller’s cantankerous nature is part of his charm and certainly his intensity is part of what drives him, but his non-existent backcheck after turning the puck over on the Calgary Flames first goal on Saturday wasn’t a good look for him. The Canucks committed big dollars to Miller on a long-term deal during the off-season and he needs to lead by example at all times. … The Golden Knights continue to be one of the most impressive stories in the NHL, closing out 2022 with an overtime win over the Predators. They currently sit first in the Pacific Division, holding a four-point cushion over the Los Angeles Kings and are tied with the Stars for top spot in the Western Conference with 52 points. With Jack Eichel having missed 12 games due to injury, Chandler Stephenson has done his part to help pick up some of the offensive slack, leading the team with 39 points in 39 games. … An impressive stat to wrap up the calendar year, as Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid recorded 57 goals and 143 points in 87 games in 2022. Those are video-game numbers and the scary thing is that he actually had 157 points in 2021. … Some folks might feel the outdoor games don’t feel quite as special as they once did, but featuring the Battle of Alberta on the 20-year anniversary of the first Heritage Classic is a great idea and it should be a fun atmosphere at Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 29.
Happy new year to you and yours. Thanks for your support and for reading my work. Here’s to a prosperous 2023.
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