NASHVILLE – Never one to prance around the shrubbery in conversation, Nashville Predators GM David Poile instead took an 85 flex to the vines and flushed out these hopes for Ryan Johansen: “To be our leading scorer. To have really good numbers offensively. To be a player who can be used in more situations than last year. I’ve got really high expectations for him.”
Later that afternoon, down the hall from Poile’s office, in the stick room of the Predators' practice facility, Johansen digested his boss’s words as relayed by a reporter. Eight months had past since the 24-year-old was first traded here, freed from a bad fit in Columbus in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones. He has since settled deeper into the city, moving from an apartment and renting the home owned by another member of another seismic one-for-one swap: Shea Weber. His first full season as Nashville’s unquestioned top-line center looms ahead, and then restricted free agency next summer.
Nah, just reality.
“It’s surprising, is the first reaction I guess,” Johansen says. “But then in the back of your mind, it tells me, why not? If someone of David’s caliber says something like that, it’s very inspiring. It’s motivating. It’s something where I’m going to put my head on the pillow tonight and be like, ‘Alright, he’s challenged me Why not? Why can’t you do it Ryan?’”
This is Johansen all over—outgoing in his introspection, aware that how Nashville sees him aligns with how he sees himself.
On the best parts of 42 regular-season and 14 playoff games with Nashville last year: “Every time you threw the sweater on, you got the bright gold in your eyes and it reminds you and pinches you every time—you’re a Predator now. It always juiced me up for games and practices.”
On being 69 games away from 500 in his NHL career: “That’s definitely something you’re sitting in your backyard during the summer, having a steak, and you’re like wow, ‘I’m in my sixth year already.’ Time just flies.”
On his offseason training regimen: “I didn’t feel as explosive as I did in previous years, so I really worked on getting that strength up in my legs, as well as the conditioning part. Being a centerman, you’re up and down the ice, in the D-zone and the offensive zone. I don’t want to be the guy hanging out as the F3. I want to be down in the corner, taking pucks to the net. Really trying to get another 10 seconds or so in shift length. I feel great right now.”
Given the nature of his departure from Columbus, this last part might matter most. In late Oct. 2015, Johansen found himself glued to the bench for significant chunks of the third period in consecutive one-goal games, the first two of new coach John Tortorella’s tenure. The New York Post reported that Tortorella called out Johansen at intermission for being “not in shape,” an interaction Johansen later reluctantly confirmed. He then missed two games with an unspecified illness, presenting with fatigue.
“I went through some stuff, just with my body last year, that I had to figure out and do some adjusting to,” Johansen says. “It took a lot more time than I thought. It’s something I was able to focus on this summer. Now being able to come and look at you and say I’m in the best shape of my life.” Asked what he exactly endured, Johansen laughs. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he says. “Just stuff with the body.”
After the Predators fell to San Jose in Game 7 of the Western Conference semis—a victory would’ve meant the franchise’s first-ever appearance beyond the second round—they concentrated attention on helping their highest-paid, $6-million forward. Johansen’s statistics had improved after the trade—0.68 points per game in Columbus; 0.81 with Nashville—but Poile still saw much work to be done.
“There were so many things, from a year ago in his offseason preparation to what happened in Columbus that his year was just okay by any standards that we have for him or I’m sure he had for himself,” the GM says.
So Predators strength coach David Good visited Johansen over the summer at his Vancouver home, spelling out a new program that would better equip him to handle top-line burdens. “It was really emphasized by management and the coaching staff for me to get to that next level,” Johansen says. “It’s mostly the details of working out. You think you throw some weights on and start lifting away, but the details of each exercise, making sure you do it right and aren’t making yourself vulnerable for injuries, and just the technique. Weight lifting isn’t really rocket science. But it is science. You really need to watch and monitor everything.”
The offseason also allowed Johansen moments of relaxation that, amid trade rumors and off-ice tension and on-ice struggles in Columbus, were unavailable. “It’s a time for me to reflect on last season, because it’s such a roller coaster, and look back on the process, how everything went down, things I need to do better and things I can continue doing,” he says. “It was great for me to have a few months and really have a clear focus on what I need to be doing, the approach that I have to take.”
As for what he learned? Well, he and Poile are certainly on the same page there. “With my time in Columbus, I had a lot of good days, I had a lot of bad days,” he says. “It was a big learning process for me. I had a lot of ups and downs. Now going into my sixth year, you try to limit those ups and down as much as you can.
“I did some good things, I thought, but definitely didn’t reach my potential by any means.”