Don't look now, NHL foes -- especially you Western Conference powers -- but the Nashville Predators are back and they're coming for you.
After meandering through the first half of the regular season, Nashville is playing its best hockey and reminding observers (and opponents, for that matter) of the Predators team that tore through the first half of 2014-15 and looked like they might be ready for their first deep playoff run.
Those Predators flat-lined in the final third of last season and were bounced in the first round in six games by eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Lately, though, Nashville is on a tear, and has been a force after acquiring top young center Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones in an early-January blockbuster. Since shutting out the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 16, the Predators are 17-6-6, the second-best record over that span. The team has a plus-25 goal differential over that period after being minus-10 through the first 44 games of the season.
Johansen, 23, had 16 points in his first 16 games with the Preds, and has six points in his past four games playing mostly with wingers James Neal and Calle Jarnkrok. Neal and Johansen have combined for 10 goals and 20 points in March.
I chatted with Johansen after the Predators' commanding 5-2 win over the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Kings on Monday night.
Scott Burnside: Ryan, what were your first impressions or thoughts when you learned you were about to become a Nashville Predator?
Ryan Johansen: I get that question quite a bit just from family and friends wanting to know how you feel about the whole situation and whatnot, and the first thing that kind of came to my mind was that I couldn't wait to get to work. Couldn't wait to get on the ice with the guys and just start playing because they've been a pretty steady playoff team with a good defense that needed to take that extra step to be successful in the playoffs. I felt like I could be that piece that they were looking for. For the organization to hopefully be a winning franchise. I couldn't wait to get on the ice and get to work and find out what we could be capable of as a hockey club. As soon as I found out the news I packed up, got on the plane and I was just excited to get on the ice and start playing with these guys.
Burnside: Was there a sense of sadness of leaving the team that drafted you?
Johansen: Definitely. The city of Columbus, the Columbus Blue Jackets will always have a special place in my heart. I have so many great memories. Friends that'll last over a lifetime that I developed over the years from playing there. I truly did love being a Blue Jacket. It was a fantastic five years of my life. Speaking for me and my family, it was just such a first-class organization and place to play. It's really unfortunate things didn't work out there because I really did believe we had a good team and we were capable of being a great team for a long time. But, you know, it's professional sports and things don't always go as planned.
Burnside: Was there a family to move as well?
Johansen: Actually, I have my girlfriend living with me and we have a dog. So, basically a little family. I was lucky, I guess, that I didn't own a property in Columbus. I was just leasing. So, it was easier to take care of: grab all my stuff and get over there.
Burnside: What was the adjustment like coming to a new team, especially as a skill player where the expectations were really high for you?
Johansen: There are a few people on the Predators that are from the area that I live in, and things like that, and you run into people, whether through appearances or the All-Star Game or things like that. It was great to see a few familiar faces when you walk into the arena. That for sure helped when I first arrived. At the end of the day, the puck is dropped and you just want to go out there and work your hardest and not worry about all the little X's and O's right away. That was my approach when I first arrived. I was just trying to go out there and play my game and do my best. Obviously, they didn't just flip a coin and say, "Let's trade for Johansen." They did some research into the way play I played the game and thought I could help the hockey club. And that was the main message that the coach and the GM were telling me when I arrived.
Burnside: You came at a time when the Predators were trying to find their identity. It took them a long time to find their rhythm, their identity this year. Now that seems to have happened since your arrival.
Johansen: As soon as I arrived it was kind of a boost of energy to the guys because they were going through the struggles. It was like, "All right, now we're going to get out of this, we're going to try and take off now."
Burnside: It did take some time, though, to get things figured out, correct?
Johansen: All the lines kind of switched up, the power play unit switched up. There were a lot of different combinations that we'd tried to build chemistry with and get comfortable with. So, there was kind of some adjusting and a little more figuring out and guys trying to get their games to the level that we could be at to be successful. Once we kind of got rolling there, the depth really started coming out in our hockey club. That's a big thing that I've loved being a part of so far in my time here in Nashville, just the amount of skill throughout our lineup and from our goaltender through the defense and the forwards. It's an exciting team to play for. My dad and mom watch all my games, and after every game they're just saying how much fun it is to watch the team play.
Burnside: There was an adjustment period for you personally too, though. At one point you went 14 games without a goal, but in spite of that, the team was turning a corner. What was that like?
Johansen: I tell you one thing, it definitely helped that we were winning at that time, that we were having success as a team. If it had been the other way around when I was struggling, it would be very frustrating. Obviously, like every other player in this league, you always want to have success on the ice and play at a high level. When you're not, it can get to you at times, especially with the trade and stuff, because I want to be an impact player. And I was just trying to find my game there for a bit and I really think I took a step and turned the corner and kind of got back to what I do these last chunk of games now.
Burnside: What is it like to go from Columbus, where you played in the playoffs two years ago but had a couple of years where the team took steps back, to Nashville, where you're preparing to start the playoffs in three weeks?
Johansen: I think in the next couple of weeks, leading up to playing, in the playoffs, it'll start hitting me more. Because this league at this time of the year, it's such a focus on one day at a time and not looking ahead. I was just talking to my little brother a couple of days ago. He finished his regular season for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL. It's his draft year this year and I was just telling him how proud I was of his year, and how much he grew as a player and as a person, and I just wanted to remind him this is where the fun starts. They have their first playoff series against Kamloops coming up, and this is the time of year that you want to be a part of and have all of your success. Same thing goes for me up in the NHL level.
Burnside: Are your parents still out west in Western Canada, and have they had a chance to visit in Nashville?
Johansen: We were lucky enough we had our fathers' trip about two weeks after I was traded, so my father was able to get out and spend some time, and then my mom met my dad once we got back from the fathers' trip and we spent a week together. So, it was great for them to get to know the city a little bit and come out and experience the Bridgestone Arena and things like that.
Burnside: I would be remiss if I did not ask what kind of dog you have, and its name.
Johansen: I've got a miniature English bulldog and his name is Doug.
Burnside: OK. Why Doug?
Johansen: I don't know. If you saw him you'd be, "OK, that makes sense." He's got the big, goofy underbite stuff. It suits him well.