The Nashville Predators are having to redefine themselves as a defense-first team in the middle of this tumultuous 2019-20 season. For Ryan Johansen, the team’s highest paid center on a per year basis, this could mean a dramatic change in role on the team.

After firing Peter Laviolette mid-season, new coach John Hynes brings in a more simplistic defensive approach to the team. While much of his mindset is focused on the mental side of the game, his defensive tactics require an emphasis on “owning the middle of the ice.” This means preventing chances by the other team, while also being patient enough in the offensive end to generate high quality chances.

Since John Hynes took over, few players have seen their usage more significantly than Ryan Johansen. For example, he normally sees a high volume of zone starts in the offensive end, where his offensive skills are more immediately deployed. With Hynes, Johansen has seen a sharp increase in his defensive and neutral zone starts.

While it’s only been six games with Hynes, this is a drastic change for Ryan Johansen. And it would appear it is by design, at least according to Hynes’ comments after the game against Buffalo on Saturday night.

“I think he’s been really good defensively so far since I’ve been with him,” Hynes said after the Nashville Predators’ 2-1 victory. “Tonight, he was more of an impact offensively too. He had the puck you could see him he made some plays. He was playing against the top line, but he didn’t have to defend all night. And that’s something that you want with a guy like him, is if he can play against other teams’ top lines and make those guys defend.”

So it would appear Hynes perceives Johansen as more of a shutdown center, capable of removing the opposing team’s top unit from the game, while also contributing on offense. While this is something we know Johansen can do (the best example is from the 2017 four game sweep of Chicago, where he effectively eliminated Jonathan Toews from the series), it’s probably not what David Poile imagined when trading for Johansen and then signing him to an eight-year deal.

So… is making Johansen a shut-down center a good plan?

Against Buffalo this plan worked. His line with Austin Watson and Calle Jarnkrok kept Jack Eichel’s line at bay for most of the game. The shot attempt and high danger attempt numbers were even at both ends, and perhaps more importantly, the overall pace of the game slowed down with Johansen and Eichel on the ice.

Cancelling out the opponent’s best player with one of your best players is a solid gamble.

But will this work against teams like Colorado? St. Louis? Dallas?

Jack Eichel is a great young player, but he isn’t even close to Nathan MacKinnon, who is on another level. And Eichel’s linemates are not nearly equal to the ones that Dallas and St. Louis bring on their top lines. Jimmy Vesey and Sam Reinhart are good, but they aren’t Jamie Benn or Alex Radulov or Brayden Schenn. The very idea of Watson or Jarnkrok playing opposite any of those players is unpleasant.

So the bottom line is this: Ryan Johansen is capable of being the shut-down center that John Hynes wants him to be. Despite the idiotic “lazy” moniker that gets tossed his direction, Johansen works extremely hard at both ends of the ice. Just watch when he’s on the ice and you’ll notice it (pro-tip: do not mistake patience with laziness).

But Johansen will need better linemates.

If he has to shut down players like Tyler Seguin and Ryan O’Reilly by himself, he is going to need some better talent around him. This may mean waiting for Colton Sissons to return or maybe reuniting him with Viktor Arvidsson. In a pinch, you can sacrifice someone like Filip Forsberg to take on the shut-down role with Johansen as well.

Preds Quote of the Week

“It feels like when we go down 1-0 or 2-0 we are just kind of dead on the bench, and that’s something we’ve gotta take out of our game. We’re gonna get down in games, it’s gonna happen, down by a couple goals, it’s gonna happen. But we can’t just sit and think ‘Oh, here we go again,’ sometimes I feel that’s how it is. The mindset on the bench gets quiet when we start getting down 1-0 or 2-0.”

Rocco Grimaldi with some honesty about the Preds’ mindset on the bench when giving up an early goal. Rocco has been one of the more visible Preds skaters this year and now he’s starting to make his voice heard in the locker room.

GIF Me That Good Stuff

Filip Forsberg finally pulled off “The Michigan” and Pekka Rinne now has competition for goal of the year for the Nashville Predators.

Get Them Digits

  • 357 — career wins for Pekka Rinne, good for 20th all-time on the NHL’s wins leaderboard
  • 19 — drawn penalties by Matt Duchene, which leads the Preds
  • 10 — the number of Preds players that Pekka Rinne has now outscored this season. He has 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists).
  • .65 — Mikael Granlund’s career points per game in eight seasons
  • .39 — Mikael Granlund’s points per game for the 2019-20 season, who is apparently on the trade block.

Let’s Do That Hockey

No games this week!

It’s the Nashville Predators’ bye week, followed by the All-Star break next weekend. The next Preds game is January 27th against the Maple Leafs. 

Final Thought

Perhaps the most consistent bright spot this season has been the play of Roman Josi.

The team’s only All-Star selection leads the team with 48 points, including 14 goals and 34 assists. No one on the Preds is even close to him in point total. In fact, he has more assists than anyone else has points.

Josi continues to make the case for Norris Trophy finalist. The news over the weekend that Dougie Hamilton is out for a long time with a broken leg only further solidifies the case for Josi, though his real competition is with Washington’s John Carlson, who already has 60 points on the season. And 2018 Norris winner Victor Hedman is making a strong push as well.

Of course, there’s another argument that says Josi is a better defenseman than any of his competitors. His expected goals against and high danger chances against are better than the others and near the top of the league among every day defensemen.

Roman Josi will get a chance to show his skills at next weekend’s NHL All-Star game and skills competition. While this event doesn’t mean much in the eyes of the Norris Trophy voters, it wouldn’t hurt for Josi to stand out among his peers. I expect him to make a name for himself and the Nashville Predators at the event, continuing his push for the Norris.

— Featured image via David Banks/USA TODAY Sports —

 

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