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Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will see a pair of teams that have failed to make long playoff runs in recent history. The Jackets have never made it out of the first round, while the Caps haven’t made it further than the second round in the “Ovechkin era”.

For the first time in three seasons, the Capitals didn’t come away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That might not be a bad thing considering they got knocked off in the second round each of the last two years they took home the regular-season award. Even though they didn’t finish with the best record in the league in 2017-18, the spotlight will still be bright if they fail to make a run again this year.

They already lost a number of key free agents over the last couple of years and potentially losing John Carlson would be another devastating blow to their Cup window. Saying it’s a do-or-die year for the Capitals is probably a little excessive, but they aren’t getting any younger, that much is clear.

Washington finished the year with a Metropolitan-best 49-26-7 record. That was good enough to give them 105 points in the standings, which was sixth-best in the entire NHL.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

As for the Blue Jackets, they had an up-and-down year. They won some games early in the year, despite not playing good hockey, per their head coach John Tortorella. They hit a major bump in the road in the middle of the year before finally getting back on track at the end of the season. Of course, having Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes certainly helps smooth over some of the rough patches that occur during a season.

Have they peaked too early? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that they saved their best hockey for the end of the regular season. Although they didn’t finish in the top three in the Metro, they’re probably happy to avoid the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, who have knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two times they were in them.

Despite having three more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus finished in the first Wild Card spot in the East while the Flyers were third in the Metro (Philadelphia lost 14 games in OT/shootouts). The Blue Jackets had a 45-30-7 record, but three of those losses came against the Capitals. They only managed to take down Washington once in their four meetings with their division rival.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Washington: The Capitals have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the league. Led by Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin (49 goals, 87 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the net as regularly as any other team in the playoffs. Outside of Ovechkin, the Caps also have solid depth down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals, 71 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27 goals, 83 points), Lars Eller (18 goals, 38 points) and Jay Beagle. That doesn’t even include the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson (14 goals, 35 points) and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals 25 points). The Caps are set up front. Oshie missed the final game of the season, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (24 goals, 46 points) got off to a rough start this season, but he emerged as one of the key figures in the Blue Jackets’ turnaround late in the season. They may not have a superstar like Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov, but they have more than enough depth to help them get by. Atkinson, Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 82 points), Nick Foligno (15 goals, 33 points), Boone Jenner (13 goals, 32 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 48 points), Oliver Bjorkstrand (11 goals, 40 points) Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 35 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 19 games with Columbus) can all help facilitate offense.

Advantage: Capitals. They’re superior down the middle and the overall quality and depth is simply better than what Columbus has at their disposal. Oh, and that Ovechkin guy makes a big difference, too.

DEFENSE

Washington: The Capitals have a quality number one defenseman in Carlson (15 goals, 68 points), but there’s a steep drop off after that. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov have the experience of being in the playoffs before, while Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Jakub Jerabek and Madison Bowey will attempt to serve as more than just depth pieces at this crucial time of year.

Columbus: Zach Werenski (16 goals, 37 points) and Seth Jones (16 goals, 57 points) arguably make up the best pairing in the NHL. Matchups will be key in this series, and Tortorella being able to lean on those two could be the difference between winning the round and going home early. Those two are elite, there’s no denying that. Don’t be surprised if you see them log close to 30 minutes per game in the postseason. Columbus also has Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole on the back end.

Advantage: Columbus. It’s clear that the Capitals don’t have a pairing that comes close to what Jones and Werenski can do. The duo have the ability to be game-changers in this series. But don’t sleep on Nutivaara, either. He’s another useful asset for this team.

GOALTENDING:

Washington: Under normal circumstances, the Capitals would have an advantage between the pipes because they have Braden Holtby, but the veteran has struggled throughout the year (2.99 goals-against-average, .907 save percentage). He managed to play better down the stretch, which is encouraging if you’re a Caps fan. But Philipp Grubauer has been named the starter in Game 1. It’ll be interesting to see if they utilize both in the series.

Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage) has probably been the most consistent Blue Jacket all year. When their stars weren’t performing early on, it was Bobrovsky that bailed them out. There’s no denying it, as good as some of the forwards and defensemen are on this team, he’s the backbone of the operation. The Russian netminder has the ability to steal a game, a series and potentially a Cup. Solving him won’t be easy.

Advantage: Columbus. The Capitals may have two capable goaltenders, but the Blue Jackets have “the” goaltender. That’s not to say that Grubauer or Holtby can’t get hot, but if you look at the body of work that each of these three players put in this season, you can’t deny that Bobrovsky is the best of the bunch. He has the ability to push the Blue Jackets over the top.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Washington: As you’d imagine, the Capitals finished the regular season with the seventh best power play in the NHL at 22.5 percent. Ovechkin led the way with 17 goals on the man-advantage. The Caps rely heavily on their top five players when it comes to power-play production. Carlson (32), Ovechkin (31) Kuznetsov (30), Backstrom (26), Oshie (18) led the Caps in points on the power play. The sixth best forward in that category was Lars Eller, and he only had six.

The Caps were in the middle of the pack when it came to the penalty kill during the regular season. At 80.3 percent, they were the 15th-best PK unit in the league.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets power play was near the basement of the NHL for most of the early part of the season, but a slight improvement allowed them to jump up to 25th in the league at 17.2 percent. Typically, power play goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, so the Jackets have to make sure that they get some kind of production from that unit.

Believe it or not, they were even further down the list when it came to the penalty kill, as they ranked 27th in the league at 76.2 percent. Only Tampa, Philadelphia, Montreal and the New York Islanders were worse. Ironically enough, two of those four teams are in the playoffs.

Advantage: Washington. The numbers couldn’t be any clearer.

X-FACTORS

Washington: Yes, Grubauer is starting Game 1, but the Caps’ X-factor still has to be Holtby. If he can regain his Vezina Trophy-winning form, he’ll make the Capitals that much more of a force this postseason. If he goes back to being the mediocre goalie he was throughout the 2017-18 regular season, it’ll be tougher for them to get through to the next round. That’s not to say that Grubauer can’t get the job done, but the Caps are a better team when Holtby is on his game.

Columbus: Atkinson managed to find his game, thankfully, but he’s going to have to keep it going right through the postseason. He finished the year by collecting 25 points in his final 20 games, which was huge for Columbus because it gave them another red-hot option behind Panarin.

PREDICTION

Capitals in seven games. Both teams will be eager to put their lackluster playoff track records behind them, but the Capitals’ star-power will push them over the edge. Even though Washington is a better team overall, it still won’t be easy for them to dispose of the Blue Jackets.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blue Jackets are rolling at right time

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The Columbus Blue Jackets season has looked a lot like a scary rollercoaster at Six Flags. They started the year well enough, but they quickly faded as their top players weren’t performing up to par.

But just when it looked like they were in danger of missing the playoffs, they decided to rattle off 10 consecutive victories. This streak has surprised even the most optimistic Blue Jackets fans.

The timing of this winning streak couldn’t be any better. With the playoffs just a few weeks ago, the red-hot Jackets are firing on all cylinders at the perfect time. Sure, beating Pittsburgh or Washington in the opening round won’t be easy, but confidence is a funny thing.

The question is, where exactly did all this come from?

Bob

Let’s start with an obvious answer: Sergei Bobrovsky.

Their franchise netminder has been between the pipes for seven of his team’s last 10 wins. Keep in mind, he also missed a game because of an illness. In those seven starts, the 29-year-old has given up two goals or fewer five times. He allowed three goals in road games against the Flyers and Rangers.

In all, he’s given up just 13 goals in seven victories over San Jose, Detroit, Montreal, Philadelphia, Ottawa, New York and Florida. Even though five of those teams aren’t in the playoffs right now, those are still impressive numbers.

So, the goalie’s red-hot. What else has contributed to this recent run?

Top forwards are rolling

Well Cam Atkinson, who signed a huge extension this season, has finally come to life. In fairness to him, he’s been productive for a lot more than 10 games.

Since coming back from a foot injury in late January, Atkinson has failed to pick up at least one point in just eight of 27 games. 19 games with a point, eight without. That’s strong.

During the winning streak, the 28-year-old has come up clutch a few times. He’s scored a hat trick and three game-winning goals all in his last five outings. Not too shabby.

Another player that has greatly contributed to the streak is Artemi Panarin, who has really turned it on of late.

The 26-year-old has racked up 16 points in his last 10 games. Four of those came in a win over the Rangers earlier this week.

The acquisition of Panarin has injected some speed and skill into Columbus’ lineup. That’s something they were definitely missing over the last couple of seasons. You think Chicago would want a do-over on that trade? Sure seems like they it.

All six defensemen getting it done

We all know about Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, who are two of the best young blue liners in the entire NHL, but this group is more than just two players.

Former second overall pick Ryan Murray and little-known Finnish blue line Markus Nutivaara have also helped move the puck on the back end. Nutivaara missed 11 games because of an upper-body injury between Feb. 18 and Mar. 9, but he’s picked up two goals and an assist in six games since returning.

As for Murray, he doesn’t provide as much in terms of offense, but he’s seen his minutes increase as the season has gone on.

Columbus also acquired Ian Cole from Ottawa at the trade deadline and they have veteran David Savard rounding out the group.

The play of these six defensemen forced John Tortorella to make Jack Johnson a healthy scratch on Thursday night.

The question isn’t whether or not they’ll make the playoffs because they will. Instead, it’ll be whether or not they can finally get themselves out of the first round. They won’t have it easy, but it’s time for this team to take the next step.

If the playoffs started today, they’d have a date with the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. On a positive note, they could still land home ice advantage in the first round.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Senators extend GM, hint at rebuild

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The theme of this week might be “fledgling teams acknowledging a need to rebuild, even as they frustrate their fans in other ways.”

After the New York Rangers acknowledged reality while skirting the Alain Vigneault issue, the Ottawa Senators followed suit, but they also made the questionable decision to hand GM Pierre Dorion a three-year contract extension.

(The Senators did part ways with president/CEO Tom Anselmi, however.)

Press releases often read as dry material, yet in each case it was interesting to see the writing on the wall not get ignored. Granted, the word “rebuild” itself didn’t get thrown around; the Rangers website used “retool” while the Senators stated that Dorion would “concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success.”

“Today’s announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development,” Owner Eugene Melnyk said. “It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins – at all levels – year in and year out.”

Of course, it’s difficult to ignore that the Senators must “tolerate pain” that is, in many ways, self-inflicted.

It’s likely a relief that Matt Duchene has been picking up steam lately, yet the goal wasn’t just to add a player, but rather find a catalyst to at least make the playoffs. Ottawa wouldn’t have placed a first-rounder that will either be in 2018 or 2019 on the line if they really expected things to play out this way. The Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard deal is another significant trade made under Dorion’s watch, and while many lean toward New York’s take since Mika Z is younger, the two centers’ play has been fairly even so far.

When you look at the Senators’ salary structure and see some shaky deals, it’s important to remember that some of those errors were made by previous GM Bryan Murray rather than Dorion, who’s only been in that position since April 2016.

Whether it’s trading Zibanejad or Kyle Turris, it’s important to remember that the Senators’ budget-conscious ways likely play a role in some of Dorion’s decisions, shedding some light on some deals where the Senators come across as if they’re paying a premium for lateral moves.

Even if you’re easy on Dorion, it’s kind of tough to believe that he’s not that far removed from being a finalist for GM of the Year, although hiring Guy Boucher had a lot to do with that.

Most important decisions ahead

One way or another, Senators fans aren’t most interested in whether or not their GM was getting an extension in the near future.

This merely clarifies that Dorion (and of course, Melnyk) will end up being involved in the absolutely pivotal decision regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, whose bargain $6.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19.

Karlsson’s made no qualms about getting the best deal possible after Drew Doughty hinted at as much. As dire as the Senators seem at times lately, imagining Ottawa without Karlsson is downright frightening. That said, he’s dealt with some significant – and freakish – injuries during his career, and he’s already 27. Re-signing Karlsson likely means rolling the dice that at least a portion of what you’d expect to be a lengthy contract would cover some time past his prime.

Considering that such a deal might carry an AAV above $10M per year, such a contract could be scary.

The Senators have seen long-term pacts go sideways, too. Bobby Ryan‘s $7.25M cap hit runs through (somehow) 2021-22, while they only get slightly more relief with Dion Phaneuf ($7M, ending after 2020-21).

With Karlsson needing a new deal after next season and Mark Stone headed toward RFA status this summer, there are some crucial decisions to be made, and it looks like Dorion will make them, at least alongside his owner.

(Note: we’ve seen GMs and coaches get fired in situations like these, even sometimes in close proximity to extensions, so you can never be totally certain.)

As of this moment, extending Dorion seems like a questionable move, at best.

That said, it’s also questionable to have your GM in a “lame duck” position with an expiring contract in the first place, particularly with some huge decisions looming. If nothing else, the Senators can focus on the Karlsson decision and other choices now, rather than wondering if someone else will be in charge in mere months.

What a mess. Can Dorion clean it up? The Senators are gambling that he can.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Cam Atkinson’s season to forget gets even worse

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The season that’s quickly become one to forget for Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets got even worse as The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that the forward suffered a broken foot and will miss 4-6 weeks.

Atkinson will have surgery Tuesday or Wednesday after blocking a Seth Jones shot during Saturday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers. And if you’re keeping track, he now joins Alex Wenneberg, Zach Werenski, Ryan Murray and Brandon Dubinsky out of a Blue Jackets’ lineup that is currently tied with the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division with 46 points, one point behind the division-leading New Jersey Devils.

Let’s take a look at just how much of a nightmare it’s been of late for the 28-year-old Atkinson, who has only six goals and 13 points in 32 games this season:

Nov. 17: Signs seven-year, $40.25 million extention (that’s good!)

Nov. 24: Scores twice in win over Ottawa (that’s good!)

Dec. 9: Watches win over Arizona Coyotes as a healthy scratch (that’s bad!)

Dec. 23: Goalless in 13 games, suffers broken foot blocking shot, out 4-6 weeks. (that’s real bad!)

This all comes one season after Atkinson scored 35 goals and recorded 62 points while helping lead the franchise back to the postseason. Fortunately for the Blue Jackets, they’ve still managed to find success while he and others struggle offensively. Having a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky helps mightily in that area.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.