Ryan Johansen only aspired to do one thing.
“I always wanted to play in the NHL, like every other guy in this League,” Johansen said. “I was always running around causing trouble, doing something as a kid. I never planned on doing anything else other than being a professional hockey player.”
That plan has worked out in his favor.
Acquired last week by the Nashville Predators from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones, Johansen is filling a void, that according to Preds General Manager David Poile, had been vacant for the entirety of the club’s existence.
“We accomplished something that we haven’t been able to do in the 18 years of our history, and that’s to acquire a No. 1 center,” Poile said at the time of the deal. “Having Ryan Johansen at center ice, still with the defense that we have… I think that is a better balance for our club.”
Early returns have been positive. The 23-year-old, Vancouver native has been finding his way with his new team, registering six points in his first four outings, including a power-play goal just 2:35 into his opening game with Nashville. Talk about a first impression.
“That’s the way you want to enter a team, right?” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of Johansen. “For your first opportunity on a power play and to slow things down and make shots that a lot of people just can’t make, that’s the elite skillset that he possesses.”
Joining the Preds at the time he did was a unique situation for Johansen – one practice at home, and then a four-game road trip, providing ample time for Johansen to become more familiar with his teammates and to start building that imperative chemistry on and off the ice.
“Players around the League, our lifestyles are so similar; we grew up doing the same thing we’re doing now, and we’re all living the dream. Our life revolves around hockey, so it’s been pretty easy to get acclimated to a new team and get to start to build relationships with the guys,” Johansen said. “They make it very welcoming and very comfortable, which has been great.”
Johansen has skated on a line with James Neal since first arriving with the team, and the two have already shown signs of becoming an impressive combo. Add Filip Forsberg, or Kevin Fiala, to the opposite wing, and the trio has had a chance to make something happen every time they’re on the ice.
“It does take time when you have a new guy and a new pieces on a line,” Neal said. “It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take Ryan a feeling-out process for him to know us and for us to know him… but it’ll come, and sooner rather than later. He’s got a great skillset and plays with the puck really well. He’s got a good shot - you saw that in Colorado right away - so we’ll be good.”
While Johansen always dreamed of making it to the NHL, that possibility wasn’t immediately realized as early as it may have been for others. Johansen played junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, where he not only continued to develop his elite skillset, but also began to see the potential he had to make his dream a reality.
“It kind of happened later for me; I don’t think it became realistic until I was in the start of my draft year,” Johansen said of making it to the NHL. “We had some early success in Portland, and then you see your name on those draft rankings and it’s pretty surreal when you first see that. For me at that time, just seeing my name on a list like that, it was really cool.”
Johansen was selected fourth overall by Columbus in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and went right from junior to the big club, going through some growing pains before eventually developing into an All-Star in 2015.
“I had a lot of challenges, and I still have a lot of challenges. It’s a tough League,” Johansen said. “I had a lot of ups and downs in my first couple of years, and there’s so many details at the NHL level you don’t even think about or would think there are. Even today, I’m in my fifth year in the League, and you’re learning stuff all the time. It’s been a lot of video, a lot of teaching, a lot of work, and hopefully I can really polish it up and always have that consistent game at both ends of the rink to be successful.”
Johansen must have learned something in those first couple of NHL seasons, because he potted a career-high 33 goals in 2013-14, and followed that up with a 26-goal and 71-point season in 2014-15, his best to date. While he’s certainly proven he knows how to put the puck in the net, that practice wasn’t always first on the brain for Johansen.
“I’ve always been a pass-first guy growing up, and then my third year in the League, I had 33 goals and I was just shooting everything,” Johansen said. “I shot a lot, and kind of surprised myself that I could score that many goals. I think I got away from that a little bit. I kind of got back to my old habits where I like setting guys up; I like watching the other guys celebrate. It’s just how I played the game growing up, and I think you need to have a good mixture of that.
“But I do have a good shot, and I need to use it more because when I’m in situations, you can’t be giving up those opportunities and trying to make a play where the percentages aren’t as good.”
The balance has been there so far in Nashville, whether it’s tallying with the man advantage in Colorado, or setting up someone like Neal for the game-tying goal with just seconds left in regulation versus the Jets. And Johansen enjoys nothing more than seeing others around him capitalize when it matters most.
“For me, I love watching my teammates have success,” Johansen said. “There’s nothing more fun than winning hockey games and going out there, sacrificing everything, putting yourself aside and doing everything you can for your teammates. When you do that for 82 games a year, and then hopefully the postseason, and you have success after all those days of hard work together, on the road, on the plane, on the bus - you create so many lifelong memories and friendships, and that’s what this game is all about.”
Johansen had a dream when he was young. Now he’s living it. As that journey continues in the Music City – not a bad destination for the self-proclaimed music lover – he fills a void that was missing. Time will tell if he is indeed that desired piece.
For now, though, he’s just enjoying life in the game, a plan that’s working out just fine.
“It’s so cool to be a part of a sport like hockey,” Johansen said. “It’s such a special opportunity for us that we want to make the most of it and do the best we can.”