NASHVILLE -- A year ago this week, Ryan Johansen played his first game for the Nashville Predators His arrival marked the first of two seminal trades executed by Nashville GM David Poile during a seven-month span that would rock the hockey world and forever change the complexion of three franchises.
Although it was overshadowed by the sheer star power of the Shea Weber-for-P.K. Subban deal in June, it's fair to argue that Nashville's acquisition of Johansen, the first franchise center to don a Predators jersey, for standout young defenseman Seth Jones stands as the most important transaction in the team's history. In 42 games with Nashville, Johansen racked up 34 points (eight goals, 26 assists) and tallied eight more points (including four goals) in 14 playoff games.
But in spite of high expectations for both Johansen and his team in 2016-17, Nashville sits outside the playoff bubble at the season's midpoint. Johansen, 24, leads the team in scoring (with 29 points including 22 assists), but it's clear that the Predators are expecting more from him -- as they are from the rest of the lineup -- so that they can produce the kind of meaningful playoff success that has thus far eluded them. Nashville has never advanced beyond the second round.
"Ryan is very young. That's the first thing," Poile told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "He has elite ability. He's got tremendous hockey sense and vision. The sky's the limit. And I think we're seeing some progress. But I think we're just scratching the surface of where his game is going."
I recently spent time with Johansen over lunch in the Nashville players' lounge. We talked about what it was like to be traded in the middle of the season, how the Predators can overcome their growing pains and why he is wowed by the "passion" of Nashville's fans.
ESPN.com: You're coming up on the anniversary of being traded to Nashville. What was that experience like?
Johansen: There'd been a lot of talk going on. I got a call from Jarmo [Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen]. He asked me if I'd come over to the rink. I lived right beside the rink, so I ripped over there quickly. All of management was there, sitting upstairs. We actually had a great talk. We were sitting there for probably 20, 30 minutes. We had a really good relationship. They were appreciative of the work I did, and I was appreciative of them for giving me a chance to play there. I was pretty thankful for that [talk]. They could have just called me and said, "Hey, your plane is taking off in an hour, so see you."
ESPN.com: I was in Columbus recently visiting Seth Jones at his apartment. He said, "You know who lived here before? Ryan Johansen."
Johansen: That's awesome.
ESPN.com: As it turns out, you know Seth pretty well. Did you have much conversation at the time of the trade -- or since?
Johansen: I have a charity golf tournament every summer, and I was going through my list of [numbers]. This is when I was still with Columbus. Who would come? Who should I call? So I call Jonesy and ask, "Hey, buddy, would you want to come out?" He said, "Yeah, I'll be there, 100 percent." We're hanging out. He's coming out and supporting my tournament.
Six months later -- boom! -- we're getting traded for each other. He lands and comes off the jet coming from Nashville to Columbus, and then I'm going back on that jet going to go to Nashville. So I see him walk off the plane, and we hug and say, "Wow, how crazy is this?" And then we ended up just sitting there at the airport, shooting the s--- for a while. We probably talked for a half hour, 40 minutes. And then on we went.
ESPN.com: Were you mad or sad, or were you like, "Let's move on?"
Johansen: It definitely wasn't anger or frustration or anything like that. I don't know how to explain this. I was disappointed, I guess, just because, on a performance level, I wasn't playing to my capabilities that year. We're in the business of winning. Our team was really struggling, [so] they had to do something. We knew change was coming.
I went through some stuff that year too with my body [Johansen had an irregular heartbeat that affected his training regimen] that I had to figure out. But coming here and coming to a good team that was on a playoff run and had a decently successful postseason? It was electrifying. It was a breath of fresh air. Every day that I came to the rink, it was just hockey, and it was a blast again. It was so much fun. These fans here, they're just crazy too.
ESPN.com: What was the hardest adjustment for you, when you think about the past year, your health and where your game is?
Johansen: The transition was really easy. It wasn't like a summer trade, where I had three months to think about it. It was like, boom! We were in a playoff push, we need to win games, and we need to just go out and play hockey. That's what I enjoyed so much about it right away, I guess.
ESPN.com: You're not living in Seth's old place, are you?
Johansen: No. I'm in Shea's place now.
ESPN.com: With the expectations as high as they've ever been for this club coming into the season, did it change how you approach things? Did you feel the weight of those expectations?
Johansen: I would never call it a weight or a pressure because you want people to recognize your talent, to recognize your team and the hard work you've done. It's a credit to the guys on our team and how we play. But I think the main thing with that is the belief. You've just got to understand that you're capable of doing it. We're in a position right now where we've got to recognize that we've got to believe that we're a top team.
It's easy right now to go, "Oh, we're just a middle-of-the-NHL team." [With] our record, we're borderline playoffs. You've got to throw that out of the window and say, "We're a top team here, and we've got to take off."
There's time, but this is when every team is really trying to find their game and trying to get on a little run. It'd be a great time for us to do that.
ESPN.com: Is that part of growing up or evolving as a player? In the past, maybe you'd have been more frustrated or tried to do more or too much? I get the sense that you're more Zen about it now.
Johansen: Right. And that's the thing with young teams. I've played on a lot of young teams, the youngest in the league for a while in Columbus. And we've got a pretty young team here again because we've lost guys like Barret Jackman, Eric Nystrom and Paul Gaustad. We lost a lot of veteran guys.
So we've had some growing pains for the first few months here -- and inconsistencies. That happens, but you've got to understand the process. As long as you keep getting better and don't make the same mistakes, that's the main thing. We're doing a lot of good things. We've just got to stay as consistent as possible.
ESPN.com: Is playing here different than you thought it was going to be?
Johansen: I was a little surprised by the passion of the fans. I always thought they were good fans here, but I didn't realize that they were great. We've sold out every game this year in Tennessee -- hockey in Tennessee. That's pretty incredible. It makes you really proud of who you play for. I've had a lot of visitors from Vancouver come this year because they're so excited I'm in Nashville. They've always wanted to go to Nashville, so now they have an excuse to come and visit.
ESPN.com: Do you have extra rooms for visitors?
Johansen: Yeah, we've got a few extra rooms. But it was tough to kick them out. They were loving it here.
ESPN.com: Are you married?
Johansen: I have a girlfriend and a dog. So basically.
ESPN.com: What kind of dog?
Johansen: Miniature English bulldog. He's a beauty. He's awesome.
ESPN.com: Do people recognize you on the street here?
Johansen: Not really, no. Once in a while, you get a fan who does. They're so respectful here. I think they're used to it. They see all these country stars and musicians around town. They always say, "Hey, Ryan. How are you? Good to see you." They're really respectful, like they don't want to interfere. I found that pretty interesting.