Now, as the one-year anniversary of the trade that sent Johansen to the Predators approaches, he is arguably the centerpiece of an elite forward group trying to bring the Stanley Cup to Nashville.
On January 6, 2016, the Predators sent defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus for Johansen. For the first time in franchise history, Nashville had a true number one center entering the prime of his career.
That fact wasn’t lost on Johansen.
“You can look at it as pressure,” Johansen said. “Obviously, there’s pressure everywhere in professional sports. For me, it’s just going out and having fun, doing my thing. If they believe in you being a number-one center, then obviously you have the capabilities to do it.”
“It’s about putting on the skates and just putting my best effort forward and let my game and skill level take care of itself. It’s been a fun almost-year so far and being with these guys and bringing my game to Nashville.”
The Early Days
At 5:31 PM central time on January 6, the Predators announced that they had acquired Johansen. In a conference call shortly after, he acknowledged his season hadn’t been perfect with just 26 points in 38 games, but he appreciated the chance to get a fresh start.
“The first half hasn’t been how I drew it up, but I’ve got a chance to really get my game back on track and where I want it to be and have a great finish to the season and hopefully make a long run in the playoffs,” Johansen said that night. “As a Predator now and fitting in with that team, I know that they were looking for a top centerman, so I just want to fit that role and hopefully make the team better in that way, I guess, do everything I can to help the team win.”
Once he joined the team, he wasted no time getting to know everyone, relying on some old friends along the way.
“There are so many good people in the National Hockey League, we’re pretty spoiled for that,” Johansen said. “I played five years in Columbus, so over those years you meet people and I happened to know a few guys on this team before I even got here, so that was nice showing up and knowing a few guys, showing you around and telling you how things work around here and stuff. It was a pretty easy transition.”
Two nights later, the Predators were in Colorado taking on the Avalanche, and Johansen donned the gold and white for the first time. Right off the bat, he made his presence known on the ice by scoring a beautiful power play goal to open the game.
He took the puck along the goal line, looked for a pass, and quickly fired it over the near shoulder of goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
— NHL (@NHL) January 9, 2016
For Johansen, that was a surreal moment.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “Obviously, you never imagine or think or plan for those things to happen. To get a shot like I did with the angle, it was pretty cool to see that one go in.”
From there, Johansen picked up eight goals and 26 assists the rest of the season, as well as eight points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A Perfect Fit
With a calendar year under his belt in Nashville, Johansen feels like one of the locals. He’s been well-ingratiated in the locker room and the city. Johansen’s Instagram page contains photos of him at local restaurants like The Flipside. In addition, he got into a Twitter exchange with country music star and wife of Predators captain Mike Fisher, Carrie Underwood, over funny footage of him kissing his hockey stick. He followed that up by giving her one of his jerseys before her tour stop in Nashville.
All of that makes those early days with the team seem like ancient history.
“Coming here, I was in a pretty specific role when I got here and thrown right into the fire,” Johansen said. “It’s been a lot of fun playing on a top line here and being the guy that’s counted on to make differences in games. It’s crazy, time flies by. I can’t believe it’s already coming up to a full year.”
Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis, who played with Johansen on Team Canada at the 2011 World Juniors, said Johansen was a natural fit on the Predators and in Music City
“He had a couple of people he knew on the team, but if you know Joey at all, he’s got a great personality and fits in a lot of scenarios,” he said. “I think he found a home pretty quick here, not only with the guys but with the city itself. He’s taken off every since.”
Dynamic, On and Off the Ice
This season, Johansen has been a workhorse for the Predators. Through 29 games, he leads the team in points with 21 and tied for the team lead in assists with 15. Analytics-wise, he’s been a strong forward as well. He has the second-highest Corsi for percentage (ratio of on-ice shot attempts for/against) amongst regular Predators players at 57.35%.
Forward Filip Forsberg, who plays on Johansen’s wing on most nights, loves playing with an elite talent down the middle.
“I get to expect to get the puck all the time,” he said. “He’s a great passer, he can find you from anywhere, so you’ve just got to be ready for the puck and you’ll get good chances.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette said Johansen has evolved from an offensive juggernaut to full-time workhorse for the Predators.
“He’s had a really strong year,” Laviolette said. “To me, he’s playing strong right now at both ends of the ice. He’s a good face-off man, we’ve gotten him involved on the penalty kill, so he’s a guy now for me that takes on all minutes and all situations for us. The more he understands his role here and the importance of him being that guy, the better our team’s gonna do.”
The Predators have undergone a fairly dramatic transformation since Johansen joined the team. Veterans like Eric Nystrom and Paul Gaustad were not brought back in the summer, and the team’s captain, Shea Weber, was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban. Some of the team’s younger players needed to become leaders quicker than expected.
Enter the 24-year-old Johansen.
“We’ve lost some of the leadership in the room from the previous years, just some of the veteran players, and I think he’s really working to try and fill that void,” Laviolette said.
A Bright Future
Going forward, Johansen has put himself in a position to succeed and has found a home in Nashville. With a full training camp under his belt and time to adjust to living in Music City, he’s ready to really make himself a force to be reckoned with.
“When I got here, I was just thrown into the fire and it was hockey, hockey, hockey, trying to make our playoff push,” he said. “Being able to go through a training camp and being here for a month before the season started, golfing and spending time with the guys, and really getting to know them on a personal level was cool.”
“And then going through the start of the season, like every team for the most part does, we had some early ups and downs and growing together. It’s been nice almost a year now, it’s been great getting to know the guys on the team and people in the organization.”