Since he was acquired in a Jan. 2016 trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Ryan Johansen has been the unquestioned No. 1 center for the Nashville Predators.
As he works his way back from season-ending surgery on his right leg, his health isn’t the only thing that Johansen is battling in what is shaping up to be a defining summer for the 30-year-old forward. With breakout years from youngsters including Tommy Novak and Cody Glass, Johansen is likely facing a prove-it season in which he’ll have to earn his way back into the Predators’ top six.
“[Johansen] is going to have to have his best summer,” incoming Predators general manager Barry Trotz said during his end-of-season press conference. “The league is getting quicker, [Johansen] is a skillful player, he has size and is good on faceoffs. He has a lot of things to offer. The game is getting quicker and that’s not one of his strengths, so how does he get that half-second back?
“Right now, he’s chasing the moving train a little bit. He can catch it but he’s going to have to have a big summer. His play in training camp will dictate his role in terms of how far up in the lineup he plays or how far down he plays.”
Working against Johansen is the fact that he was injured on Feb. 21 when his ankle was cut by the skate blade of Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes. The injury ended his season after just 55 games, in which he scored 12 goals and 28 points, and sidelined him for 12 weeks.
“I was just thinking I got a little slice and I could get stitched up and go back out there,” Johansen told reporters at the end of the season. “I found out after about five minutes (of being evaluated) and them looking at it and it had gotten a couple of tendons.”
Surgery today for Johansen. Really unfortunate. https://t.co/i7fAWcG9gz
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) February 22, 2023
With Johansen out of the lineup, Novak and Glass picked up the slack, combining for 41 points in 27 games. Head coach John Hynes relied on both at key points and both saw their ice time increase (Novak 12:53 per game, Glass 12:43 per game).
Glass was relied on most to center the top line, playing 24 games there while bumping down to the second line for the other three games. After a developmental season with the Milwaukee Admirals the previous year, the young skater seized his opportunity, leading the Predators with four power-play goals since Johansen had exited the lineup.
Not only was Glass productive on the scoresheet, but he also made his mark at the face-off circle, where he won the second-most faceoffs (165) on the team in Johansen’s place with a 51.2 win percentage.
“For me, it was inspiring; I think that’s the best word for it,” Johansen said of watching the young players step up. “I really enjoyed going around interacting with fans and hearing from them and how they were proud of the kids playing. It was good to get our feet back going and have some kids come up and try and make names for themselves.”
Now, not only will Johansen have to “catch the moving train,” he also has to hold off the young, hungry forwards who thrived when given a chance to play in key situations and valuable games.
“You’re not able to replace a guy like Ryan,” Hynes said of Johansen’s injury during an interview on 102.5 The Game in February. “He has a great personality and is a great teammate, and he does so much for our team. The reality is that it’s a great opportunity for some other players to get some other roles and opportunities to play.”
The good news for Johansen is this isn’t the first serious injury he’s battled back from. He had emergency surgery in May 2017 after suffering a thigh injury against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final that resulted in acute compartment syndrome. He rebounded with 15 goals and 54 points, finishing fourth on the team in scoring.
Moments like that, according to Hynes, help cultivate a mental toughness that’s important to the team.
“Toughness is not just the physical part of it,” he said. “There’s this part of it where you have injuries and you have guys that step up. This is another example where we haven’t been hit with the injury bug until now where you have so many injuries. Every time there’s a situation that’s adversity there’s also an opportunity in that.”
While Johansen’s light-hearted nature is a welcomed presence in the locker room, there’s also a business side to the NHL. Trotz has a few aces in his deck of cards, and if Johansen can’t be what the Predators need, then the forward may see a decrease in ice time or he could possibly be traded.
Johansen has two more years and $16 million remaining on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2025-26.