It was a rocky offseason for the Nashville Predators and for forwards Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg for varying reasons.
General Manager David Poile appeared to have burned a bridge with Forsberg after trading away close friend Viktor Arvidsson to the Los Angeles Kings. He also didn’t do himself any favors when he reportedly tried to find a trade partner for the remaining $34 million of Johansen’s contract, or when he exposed both Johansen and Duchene in the Seattle expansion draft.
But for now, all parties seem to be stuck with each other.
Left to deal with the aftermath of Poile’s offseason fails, so to speak, Predators head coach John Hynes has spent the majority of training camp and the preseason trying to make the pieces of the puzzle fit.
“To me, the past is the past,” Hynes said. “We’ve had some good conversations with our players — [Johansen and Duchene] included — in the offseason about things that we’d like to see better but also things that we can do to help those guys.”
The solution, or at least a key piece to the solution, may be what has been right in front of the Predators all along: stick all three players on the top line and let them figure it out.
That philosophy worked well at the end of last season and into the playoffs — the line accounted for 37 shots, four goals (all from high-danger areas), 27 scoring chances for, 13 high-danger chances for, and an offensive-zone faceoff percentage of 75 in the postseason — and it could be the remedy for the offensive deficiencies that plagued Nashville for much of last year.
“I wouldn’t say [Johansen and Duchene playing together] was something that was set prior to camp,” Hynes said. “I did have a conversation with those guys individually, and I think there is some chemistry there. We saw some of that in the playoffs. I thought this was a good opportunity for them to come in and create some chemistry in training camp, and what we’ve seen so far is three pretty motivated players.
“They’ve had some good exhibition games, we’ve kept them together in practices, they’ve fed off each other’s work ethic and I think the way they think the game and can play the game looks like a pretty good combo. The thing that separates them now going into the season is that work ethic and competitiveness has been at a level that allows their talent and skill to come out.”
When paired together last season in parts of 20 regular season games, Forsberg, Johansen and Duchene proved they could be offensively dominant. As a line, they bested their opponents in shots for (40 to 10), scoring chances (38 to five), high-danger chances (14 to two) and had an offensive-zone faceoff percentage of 88.6.
The trio played together in three of Nashville’s six preseason games, and the chemistry still looks to be there, as does the skill. In those three games, they combined for six goals and 13 points while generating 18 shots as each saw at least three minutes or more on the power play.
Those stats, coupled with the work ethic Hynes has seen in practice, is why the head coach has stood by keeping them as his top line.
“They’ve come back in good shape, and I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve practiced. … They are driving practice. When you look at their execution level, their speed and pace, we’re doing lots of competitive things and it’s the hardest I’ve seen them compete in practice since I’ve been here. That’s allowing their talent to come out in those situations. I think that [Johansen and Duchene] are in a really good spot. I’m optimistic for them not only to have good years but to be able to help our team.”
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