The Predators have been in existence since 1998. David Poile has been the general manager from Day One.
Nashville has never won a Stanley Cup. Their fruitless quest has not changed Poile’s philosophy to team building. The Northeastern graduate believes in building from the blue line first, regardless of quantity or need. Poile’s marching orders to assistant GM Paul Fenton and chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty is to target the best pro and amateur defensemen and hustle them into Nashville uniforms.
So when Columbus counterpart Jarmo Kekalainen made Ryan Johansen available, Poile had the best stockpile to land the first-line center he’s never had. There were a lot of other teams that wanted the 23-year-old Johansen. But only Nashville had the asset, 21-year-old Seth Jones, that Kekalainen had to have to say goodbye to Johansen.
“He was steadfast in what he wanted,” Poile said of Kekalainen during a news conference following Wednesday’s blockbuster. “And I was steadfast in what I wanted.”
This trade isn’t about who wins or who loses. Long term, it’s possible Jones becomes the better player. The fourth overall pick from 2013 is a big, mobile, and skilled right-shot defenseman. He is a younger if less physical version of Dougie Hamilton.
Nobody wants to let such players go. But Jones is only the first of many upgrades the last-place Blue Jackets have to make. They’re miles away from competing for a Cup.
Johansen, on the other hand, is not a lock to be a Tyler Seguin-like point producer. After averaging 0.77 points per game in 2013-14 and 0.87 per game in 2014-15, Johansen is down to 0.68 this season. Johansen’s slow start was one reason for former coach Todd Richards’s ouster. One of John Tortorella’s first actions as Richards’s replacement was to target Johansen as a player not performing to his potential.
By the end, Johansen was playing on the third line. It is not where Johansen belongs. Nor is it where the Predators intend to use him.
“We played our center ice a little differently against different teams,” Poile said. “Ryan Johansen is a better matchup for us when we go up against some other clubs. We were looking for a big centerman. He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. He can play the big game. It’s a big change for us up front.”
This trade is about Nashville applying the theory of supply and demand to land what Poile believes has been the missing link. In 2013, Poile expected Nathan MacKinnon or Aleksander Barkov to be available at No. 4. But the centers went 1-2 to Colorado and Florida. Tampa Bay picked Jonathan Drouin third. Jones fell into Poile’s lap.
The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones became an important part of Nashville’s six-pack. But this season, he’s been behind Roman Josi, Shea Weber, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. Given Jones’s pedigree, it’s possible and even likely that he could have become one of Nashville’s top two defensemen. But a forward, specifically a center, was what Poile and coach Peter Laviolette needed more than a three-zone defenseman.
“Today, in my belief we accomplished something we haven’t been able to do in 18 years of our history,” Poile said. “And that’s to acquire a No. 1 center. We’ve had a lot of players come through here and we’ve had some good centers. But we have a chance here to have a truly No. 1 center, something we’ve been coveting for a long time.”
Poile has a history of making significant deals. On Feb. 15, 2007, the Predators acquired Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia. Nashville was a good team that season. Weber and Ryan Suter were young but showing signs of becoming top-flight defensemen. Tomas Vokoun was excellent in goal. Veterans such as Paul Kariya, J.P. Dumont, David Legwand, and Jason Arnott were good players up front. Poile believed Forsberg could be a difference-maker in the playoffs.
But Forsberg, 34 at the time, was the usual Forsberg — injured. In five playoff games, Forsberg scored two goals and two assists. The Predators, who had finished fourth in the Western Conference, lost in the quarterfinals.
The Flyers picked Nashville as Forsberg’s destination because of the return. They landed Scottie Upshall and first- and third-round picks in 2007. But the primary piece was Ryan Parent, Nashville’s first-round pick in 2005. Parent was a 19-year-old defenseman at the time of the trade. Philadelphia projected the left-shot Parent to become a top-four fixture for the next decade. It didn’t work out that way. The Flyers traded Parent back to the Predators three years later. He has not played in the NHL since 2010-11.
Forsberg was on his way out of the league when Nashville got him from Philadelphia. Johansen, in comparison, is still wearing diapers. He has not even approached what he could become as a top-flight center. Johansen has the potential of becoming a less-mean version of Ryan Getzlaf. That’s elite. Johansen will get the puck to James Neal and Colin Wilson in better scoring areas than they’ve ever known with Mike Ribeiro, Mike Fisher, Calle Jarnkrok, or any of Nashville’s other pivots.
Johansen is signed through 2017 at a $4 million annual cap hit. He will make $6 million next season, then become restricted. The Predators will have to qualify Johansen at the $6 million sum, which means it will be the minimum he can earn on a long-term deal. It’s a raise Poile will be delighted to give him.
A significant salary hike would have been tougher for Poile to give Jones after this season. But based on the market, Jones, who is in the final year of his entry-level contract, is due for a big payday. Hamilton scored a six-year, $34.5 million extension with Calgary. It would be the comparable for Jones.
The Predators have already invested more than $18 million in their top four defensemen. By paying Jones what he’s worth, Nashville would have been allocating too large a percentage of its cap dollars on the blue line. Moving Jones made sense from both cap and roster perspectives.
Pekka Rinne and their top two defensive pairings are under contract through 2019. That’s a good base. Johansen now complements Neal and Filip Forsberg as Nashville’s up-front difference-makers. In the dog-eat-dog Central Division, strength is required at all three positions. Now the Predators have it.
TEAM TO BEAT
Capitals seem to have it all
If the Capitals’ strength was about their star players, they would have won a Cup sometime in the last three seasons. Within this segment, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby have been among the best at their respective positions.
Instead, what makes the Capitals the team to beat is what usually separates the best from the good: depth.
“I don’t think we’re the elite team the Washington Capitals are, by no means,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t play and you can’t beat a team like that. It just means that throughout the whole year, they’ve got the experience and they’ve got the depth. I think they’re solid in almost all positions. We were that team at one point. We’re not there now. We’re trying to build ourselves toward that.”
The Bruins did a terrific job on Ovechkin, Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie on Tuesday. At even strength, none of the first-liners recorded a point. Ovechkin, the league’s runaway leader in shots, landed just two pucks on net. Oshie also had only two. Backstrom put one puck on goal. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, the two primary players tasked to shut down Washington’s top line, had done their jobs.
But the Bruins didn’t have any answers for Washington’s second and third lines, especially No. 2 pivot Evgeny Kuznetsov. On most teams, Kuznetsov would be the first-line center. As such, the opposing best players, such as Chara and Bergeron, would draw Kuznetsov as their assignment.
Dennis Seidenberg was on the wrong end of Washington’s depth.
In the first period, Kuznetsov and linemate Andre Burakovsky worked their magic. While Kuznetsov protected the puck in the corner against Seidenberg and Landon Ferraro, Burakovsky lost himself in the Boston defense.
First, Burakovsky stretched out the box by retreating up to the blue line, which drew Matt Beleskey his way. Then Burakovsky slipped behind Ryan Spooner, the center positioned to seal off cross-ice passes. Once Spooner lost his assignment and Colin Miller failed to get untangled from Justin Williams, the Capitals made the Bruins pay. Kuznetsov threaded the puck through the seam to Burakovsky on the far post.
Kuznetsov lasted until the 26th pick in 2010. With his skating, skill, and creativity, Kuznetsov could become one of the draft’s top three centers alongside Tyler Seguin and Ryan Johansen.
“Everybody is seeing what he can do with the puck,” teammate Marcus Johansson said. “When you have that confidence, it’s pretty fun to watch him play.”
In the third period, Johansson beat Seidenberg in front of the net. Johansson is Washington’s No. 3 center. On most teams, Johansson (20-27—47 last season) is a top-six forward.
Like most teams, the Capitals’ success depends largely on their health. Losing Holtby would be the equivalent of Montreal being without Carey Price. But the Capitals didn’t look like they were missing John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, and Jay Beagle very much when they were rag-dolling the Bruins for stretches of their 3-2 win.
The Capitals supplemented their roster by signing Kings castoff Mike Richards. Whether the 30-year-old Richards has anything left remains to be seen. His legs have been missing for years. If Richards doesn’t work, the Capitals have enough space and resources to add another defenseman.
The Capitals can beat opponents with speed, size, skill, grinding, and goaltending. They do not have any weaknesses.
Trading Drouin may be dangerous
Peter Chiarelli is friendly with Steve Yzerman. Chiarelli worked for Yzerman, Team Canada’s general manager, during the 2014 Winter Olympics. The two collaborated on the Brett Connolly trade, one of Chiarelli’s final transactions before he was fired by the Bruins.
It’s a good bet, then, that Yzerman has considered the fallout of Chiarelli’s July 4, 2013, trade of Tyler Seguin when considering the future of Jonathan Drouin.
Trading Seguin may become one of the worst deals in Bruins history. It’s possible that after this season, Joe Morrow will be the only player remaining in Boston from the original trade. Seguin, meanwhile, is on pace to earn a Hall of Fame plaque.
Based on skill, Drouin could end up in the same destination. There are few players who have the speed, quickness, hands, and creativity of the Tampa wing. The 20-year-old has not even come close to reaching his potential.
Yet Drouin, for some reason, already wants out from the organization that drafted him third overall in 2013. The Lightning will be in no hurry to accommodate Drouin’s wish. His age, ceiling, and lack of movement leaguewide indicate a trade will not happen any time soon.
Yzerman has a lot to lose by trading Drouin. Twenty-nine of his rivals know he’s selling low. In 19 games this season, Drouin has two goals and six assists. He has not done much with his opportunity. In 89 career NHL games, Drouin has six goals and 34 assists.
Seguin was on a similar trajectory. Through his first 89 games, Seguin had 22 goals and 22 assists. That’s just four more points than Drouin.
Everybody knows what Seguin has become. Nobody can say the same about Drouin. That’s the tricky part for Yzerman. It’s hard to project what kind of player he’ll be when he reaches the sweet spot of his NHL career. Based on what he’s shown in flashes, he’ll be terrific.
Drouin isn’t just a case in isolation. Yzerman has other worries too, namely the future of Steven Stamkos, who will be unrestricted after this season. Yzerman has to decide whether Stamkos is deserving of becoming the richest player in the league.
Secondary concerns include Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov, all restricted after this season.
Yzerman will not give Drouin away just because he wants out. That’s why, if a team like Boston comes knocking, Yzerman will be asking for both of the Bruins’ 2016 first-round picks. If Yzerman doesn’t get his price, Drouin will remain team property heading into his third pro season.
Skating closer to home
The Islanders changed their game-day routine on Thursday. They held their morning skate at IceWorks, their practice rink in Syosset, N.Y., then traveled to Barclays Center for their home game against Washington. Previously, they had been traveling by train from Long Island to Brooklyn, holding their morning skate at Barclays Center, and staying in a local hotel before the game. The Islanders hired car services to shuttle the players back to Long Island postgame. There is a simple solution to both scenarios: gas the morning skate.
Flyers’ idle money
If you need proof for how much former GM Paul Holmgren has handcuffed successor Ron Hextall, consider the following amount of dough: $10.85 million. That’s the amount, according to GeneralFanager.com, the Flyers are applying toward their cap hit for players no longer on their roster: Andrew MacDonald (minors), Vincent Lecavalier (Kings), Luke Schenn (Kings), Sam Gagner (minors), and Nicklas Grossman (Coyotes). That’s on top of the two get-out-jail-free cards they used via their compliance buyouts to say goodbye to Ilya Bryzgalov and Daniel Briere. Hextall is a sharp executive. He did well in Los Angeles under GM Dean Lombardi. But it’s going to take time for Hextall to get above the surface.
Stars to host night for Peverley
The Stars will host a charity event for ex-Bruin Rich Peverley on March 12 at American Airlines Center. The event will benefit the American Heart Association. Peverley, who was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, collapsed on the Stars’ bench on March 10, 2014. The incident forced Peverley to retire after appearing in 442 NHL games for Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, and Nashville. He is currently the Stars’ coordinator of player development.
The Americans returned from the World Junior Championship with bronze, not the gold they aimed to strike. All three Bruins prospects scored in the third-place game: Brandon Carlo (second round, 2015), Ryan Donato (second round, 2014), and Anders Bjork (fifth round, 2014). Carlo will be eligible to play for Providence next season. Donato will be a sophomore at Harvard, while Bjork will be a junior at Notre Dame . . . Dallas GM Jim Nill signed a five-year extension on Friday. Giving long-term security to the burglar who pocketed Seguin was a slam dunk. Trading for Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Jason Demers, and Antti Niemi haven’t been shabby moves either.
The world juniors wrapped up last week in Helsinki, with host Finland winning its fourth title. A look at nine players who left New Englandbased teams to take part in the tournament, and how they fared:
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.