Roughly a year ago, Ryan Johansen skated out onto the Nationwide Arena ice in a different jersey. It was red, but had no blue. It was an Ohio State football jersey, which Johansen wore to the delight of the hometown fans during the 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend, during which he won MVP honors.
It was a peak Columbus sports moment, and perhaps Johansen’s apex as a Columbus Blue Jackets star.
"I went to a Buckeyes store today and I was trying to find some helmet I could put on, like a football helmet, but they didn't fit," Johansen said. "My brain must be too big. Just a smart kid, you know?"
His hockey smarts have never been an issue. His work ethic is an issue, which is why the Jackets were hesitant to go all-in with a max contract for what amounted to a franchise player. His attitude is an issue, which is why Johansen and John Tortorella have been as about as friendly as Donald Trump would be as a border patrol agent.
“This has nothing to do with John Tortorella. And Ryan Johansen did nothing wrong,” said GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
But something went wrong.
Seth Jones, who was acquired for Johansen on Wednesday, is a special player. A 21-year-old defenseman who is figuring out the offensive side of the game more each day, with a 6-foot-4 frame and the stamina to play top pairing minutes. He can be a cornerstone for the Blue Jackets, and defense was “the biggest need for our club in the short term and the long term,” according to Kekalainen.
Another big need, for any club: a No. 1 center. They thought they had it with Johansen. That size. Those hands. That 71-point season as a 22-year-old player that promised much more, to the point where Kekalainen acquired Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks as a reward, giving Johansen an elite young winger.
"We've been looking for left shot, left wing for Ryan Johansen, who's a right-shot centerman. Brandon seems to be a very good fit for that role,” said Kekalainen at the time.
And now the starring role has been recast.
Seriously, what other franchise recently has attempted to remake itself with this desperate frequency?
Jeff Carter, Flyers cast-out, reluctantly comes to Columbus in 2011 and is flipped for Jack Johnson the next season. Rick Nash, franchise player, asks out and is traded in 2012. John Davidson hired to take over the team in 2012. John Tortorella, bringing his unique brand of whimsy to the team in 2015. And now Johansen, long cast as the team’s franchise player, shipped out in-season to the Nashville Predators.
Here’s why the Blue Jackets make this deal: Jones joins Ryan Murray and especially Zach Werenski as the young holy trinity of the Blue Jackets' back line, for the next 10 years. Sergei Bobrovsky, 27, is signed through 2019. So hopefully the back end serves as a foundation.
And then, up front? Well, if you haven’t noticed, the Blue Jackets are absolutely terrible. So does one trade Ryan Johansen with the knowledge that the odds will be in their favor to snag Auston Matthews, a center and an American kid to market to fans in Ohio?
(Or, at the very least, know that Finnish star wingers Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine will be near the top of the draft as well.)
But mostly they make this trade because they feel Ryan Johansen isn’t worth the time, trouble or next contract. So they pass that problem to GM David Poile of the Nashville Predators, and that’s what David Poile does: He takes your problems away, and they become his solutions.
James Neal, for whatever reason, was a problem in Pittsburgh. He scored 23 goals last season and has 15 already this season, while brining some necessary snarl in a conference that requires it.
Mike Ribeiro was a problem for the Arizona Coyotes – and is problematic in general. He had 62 points in 82 games last season for the Preds, and 25 in 40 games this season.
Now comes perhaps the greatest challenge: Johansen.
“We were able to do something we’ve not been able to do in 18 years of our history,” said Poile, “which is acquire a No. 1 center.”
Oh, they’ve tried. Most recently it was Jason Spezza who rejected a trade to Nashville in favor of the Dallas Stars. But now they’ve allegedly got one, and he’s only 23.
Did the Predators want to trade Jones? Hell no. “He was everything we wanted as a player and a young prospect,” said Poile. “But things change.”
The No. 1 center “has been elusive” to the Predators, said Poile. “My tenure here, and even back in Washington, we’ve fallen into more elite defensemen than we’ve had elite centers.”
The Predators have Shea Weber and Roman Josi. They have Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. They dealt Jones from a position of absolute strength. And center has been their weakness.
“They don’t grow on trees. If we didn’t make this trade today, we’d be trying to make it tomorrow,” said Poile.
Playing for Peter Laviolette could be the best thing that happens to Ryan Johansen. First, because of his system, that clearly values a push from the forwards. But he’s coached Eric Staal at as young as 19 years old. He’s coached Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in their early 20s, and Claude Giroux at 22. And while a guy like John Tortorella can either break your spirit or build you up with tough love, Laviolette has always been adept at working with bright young offensive talent, and having them glowingly speak about their time with him as they blossom into stars.
Which is to say that Johansen is in the right hands to be remade.
And let’s not pretend Johansen doesn’t have work to do. His work ethic needs to improve. His passes can be as lazy as a day in a hammock. His defensive zone coverage can be pedestrian. There are times when you watch this kid and appreciate the talent, and in the same breath pray that he doesn’t squander it, because we could be watching a young, slightly less nasty Ryan Getzlaf here.
So there's hope in Nashville. Part of that is Laviolette. Part of that is Poile. Part of that is the leadership core on this team already – sorry, but there isn’t anything near a Shea Weber giving death glares in practice on the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But most of that is on Johansen. He got what he wanted, which is a change in scenery – although we guess we’ll find out if he wanted that change to be Nashville in the next contract negotiation. He’ll be nurtured, and respected, and is the offensive centerpiece of a contender in the West, even if Poile attempts to downplay it.
“We just want him to fit in. I don’t want to anoint him on any level. Play your game, be the best you can,” he said.
Oh, and be the thing the Predators have lacked since their inception, the thing they just traded one of the best young defensemen in the league to acquire: Their No. 1 center.
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