When the Nashville Predators traded future franchise defenseman Seth Jones for top line center Ryan Johansen in January of 2016, there were a lot of question marks. Not in the sense that both teams didn’t address an area of need but more so surrounding the reports that Johansen’s commitment had been questioned.
After a career year in which the Vancouver, British Columbia native tallied 71 points, the Columbus brass made a change behind the bench, ousting Todd Richards in favor of the fiery John Tortorella. As early as October, a private conversation between the new coach and his star forward was made public and, to put it lightly, that was none too appreciated by the player. Then, in December, he was benched for the entire third period (and then some) for what Tortorella explained was a “coach’s decision,” inciting further humiliation. After that, he was a healthy scratch.
You see where this was going.
Putting an end to the saga, Johansen was traded to Nashville in January and was quickly anointed the piece the Predators franchise had been missing for 18 years.
Thanks to a 61-point campaign, finding chemistry with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, producing at what was basically a point-per-game clip during the franchise’s first ever run to the Stanley Cup Final and maturing both on and off the ice, Johansen was rewarded with a shiny, new eight-year, $64 million deal this summer. If that wasn’t enough, he was also rewarded with respect from his teammates by being named one of the Preds’ alternate captains for 2017-18.
In short, he’s a come a long way in a year and a half.
“It’s just a really proud moment,” Johansen said. “My first phone call was to my father. Hearing the joy coming from him and how proud he was, it was a humbling moment.”
Full of pride, he continued.
“I’m just trying to be as close as I can to the character of my dad and what he instilled in me and my brother over all those years,” he said. “Now being a veteran in the NHL, it’s that time for me to take that next step as a leader on a team. So, to be a leader on this team — in the hottest spot to play in the NHL right now — is a tremendous honor and a very exciting day for myself and my family.”
Johansen’s brother, Lucas, is a prospect in the Washington Capitals organization and is slated to make his pro debut this season.
But the respect and appreciation didn’t just stop with his dad. He tipped his cap to previous captains as well.
“It’s really a credit to the leaders you’ve played under and what you’ve learned and taken in from those guys,” he said about wearing a letter. “I give credit to Nick Foligno in Columbus from what he taught me and what I learned from him. Then coming here with Shea [Weber] and Mike [Fisher], it’d be hard to believe there are better captains in the League. Those two are tremendous leaders and guys that I learned a lot from and try my best to be like.”
Weber led Nashville for six seasons, including Johansen’s first few months in Music City, before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens for PK Subban. Fisher then took over last summer and helped lead the Preds to the Cup Final before retiring a few weeks ago.
“You know, it’s probably the reason why we’re up there today,” Johansen said while pointing to the stage where the leadership group accepted their new jerseys in front of the media. “Because those guys guided us in the right direction. Now it’s our turn to take the torch and show the new crop of young kids coming into our group.”
After all he’s been through in his short NHL career, Johansen has emerged as a leader on a team that’s considered a favorite in the Central Division, a favorite to come out of the West and one of just a handful of true Stanley Cup contenders.
“My time in Columbus, my teammates believed in me as a leader and I believed in myself there too,” he said. “Things ended up changing and going different directions. Now, being here, I’ve taken a really big step as a person and as a player. Having the confidence of being a difference maker, I think my teammates take notice of that, as do the coaches and management, that I’m ready for this. And I’m going to keep doing everything I can to help make this team successful.”
Hopefully, one day soon, he’ll hoist Lord Stanley while wearing gold and then hand it off to his dad so they can share that moment together too.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy K. Gover