It was a deal that was several weeks in the making. All it took was Nashville Predators general manager David Poile to say enough was enough after the Predators lost 4-1 to the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday despite putting 44 shots on net.
Nashville traded defenseman Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for center Ryan Johansen.
Now, Nashville has a true first-line center for the first time in franchise history.
“In my belief, we accomplished something that we haven’t been able to do in our 18 year history, and that is to acquire a No. 1 center,” said Poile Wednesday. “We have had a lot of good players come through here. But I think we truly have a No. 1 center, something we have been coveting for a long, long time. We have been looking for a No. 1 center forever.”
A first-line center is a necessity for any team seeking to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Chicago Blackhawks have Jonathan Toews, the Los Angeles Kings have Anze Kopitar, the Boston Bruins have Patrice Bergeron, the Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and so on.
Nashville has always had the defense and goaltending but never had the scoring to set them over the top. For the Predators to acquire that ever elusive No. 1 center, they had to give up one of their elite defensemen.
It was not easy for Poile to trade away one of his favorite players, but he had to do it in order to fill a gaping hole in Nashville’s lineup.
“It was a steep price to pay,” Poile said. “I was asked by a media member six weeks ago if I would ever anticipate trading Seth Jones, and I honestly answered no. He was everything you want from a player, as a budding young prospect. If not more important, [he] was a great person that represented our organization well. But things change.
“I would prefer to have my cake and eat it, too, but you can’t. You have to pay the price. We paid the price. Columbus should be elated to get Seth Jones.”
Jones, a fourth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, played 199 games for the Predators, scoring 63 points (15 goals, 48 assists) with a minus-25 rating.
You do not have to look too far to understand how offensively challenged Nashville has been this season. Their two leading scorers are defensemen Roman Josi and Shea Weber.
Johansen’s 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 38 games with the Blue Jackets ties for second on the Predators in scoring with Weber and Filip Forsberg. And Johansen was under-performing.
“This year has been a bit of a struggle,” Poile said. “I think our defense has been good, but our offense has been a bit of a struggle.”
Johansen, a fourth overall pick by Columbus in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, will face the pressure to perform as a top-line center should on a Cup-contender. His track record shows he can. The 23-year-old played in all 82 games in 2013-14 and 2014-15, posting 59 goals and 75 assists.
Johansen also helps in the face-off circle, too. Nashville ranks 25th in the league in faceoffs, winning just 48.8-percent. Johansen has won 52.3-percent of draws this season.
“I know [the Predators] were looking for a top centerman, so I just want to fit that role,” Johansen said in a conference call Tuesday. “I will do anything I can to just help the team win. I know the expectations I have for my game. If I’m meeting those, the fans in Nashville should be happy with my play. I’m going to come in with a fresh start on a new team and try to do my thing.”
Johansen will get his shot in assisting the Predators’ turnaround on a four-game road trip beginning Friday against the Colorado Avalanche.
Nashville will host Columbus on Mar. 26 in their final meeting of the season.