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Why Jarnkrok could be key to Predators succeeding with Johansen out for playoffs

With Ryan Johansen out for the rest of the post-season, it should fall on Calle Jarnkrok to be the Predators' new top-line center. And he might be able to get the job done.

The Nashville Predators are in serious trouble, and it’s not because they dropped Game 4 of the Western Conference final. No, things are much worse for the Predators than one loss right now, because as Nashville heads into the most important game in franchise history — which each successive game is, at this point — they’re doing so without their first-line center.

Friday afternoon, the Predators got about the worst news possible as it was discovered that Ryan Johansen, who has been stellar throughout these playoffs, will miss the rest of the campaign after suffering a thigh injury which required emergency surgery. And the loss of Johansen really can’t be undersold.

Johansen had done it all this post-season. He scored winning goals, contributed on the power play and was all over the ice. His three goals and 13 points in the playoffs make him the Predators’ top scorer and his nearly 21 minutes of ice time per night put him behind only Filip Forsberg. Johansen was even a physical presence, too. Take a look back at the tying goal late in Thursday’s contest. While Johansen didn’t draw an assist, his (albeit questionable) shove to the back of Ducks defenseman Josh Manson was the play that made Forsberg’s last-minute tally possible. Maybe most importantly, though, Johansen has helped form the Predators’ most formidable on-ice unit.

Throughout this season, the trio of Johansen, Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson has been coach Peter Laviolette’s go-to offensive group, and there are few lines that saw as much time together and had as much success as the Predators’ top unit. Only 14 three-player line combinations spent more time skating together, and of the lines that skated at least 500 minutes as a unit, only the Boston Bruins’ group of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak was better at controlling play. Nashville’s ‘JoFA’ line also managed 3.31 goals for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, a 56 percent goals for percentage and drew a mountain of penalties. The trio earned 15 more calls for than against. That’s no small deal.

But with Johansen’s injury, the line is no more and won’t be getting back together for the remainder of the post-season. And while there’s no knowing what exactly Laviolette has planned for his team on Saturday, this is where Calle Jarnkrok should come in.

Though some would argue on a pure minutes basis that Mike Fisher, who has averaged 16:58 through the first 14 playoff games, is the Predators’ second line center and the prime candidate to ship up to the top unit, the reality is it should be Jarnkrok, if anyone, who finds his way in between Arvidsson and Forsberg. And that’s not just because Fisher, who missed the end of Game 4, is questionable to participate in Saturday’s contest with an injury of his own.

In terms of average ice time, Jarnkrok isn’t all that far behind Fisher — 28 seconds separate the two — and though Jarnkrok hasn’t produced all that much this post-season, his one goal and one assist are two points more than Fisher has put up thus far. It’s not just the meager point production that falls in Jarnkrok’s favor, though. Of the centers available to the Predators for Game 5, which include Jarnkrok, Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sissons and possibly Fisher, Jarnkrok fits between Forsberg and Arvidsson for a number of reasons.

When it comes to finding a replacement for Johansen, Laviolette will likely be looking for someone who can still offer the pace-pushing speed that the line possessed before, and it’s hard to point to another center on the roster who has the ability to do that alongside Forsberg and Arvidsson quite like Jarnkrok. Not only that, but of the pivots that will be available, there may not be another center who has as much playmaking talent as Jarnkrok. Fisher put up more points in the regular season, yes, but Jarnkrok has the ability to act as the set-up man. On a line with two 30-goal scorers, that will be as important as the ability to put the puck in the net himself. Johansen had that lamp-lighting ability, but he also managed to pick up assists on 27 of the 62 goals scored by his wingers this season. That puck distribution will be missed, and it will be up to the line’s new center to bring that. Jarnkrok can.

There’s another area, too, where Jarnkrok could make an impact between Forsberg and Arvidsson like no other pivot: the faceoff circle. The Ducks have largely dominated the dot against the Predators, but, go figure, the best faceoff man in Nashville in the series has been Johansen. Before falling injured, he was winning 51.1 percent of his draws. Right behind Johansen, though, is Jarnkrok at 50.9 percent. That’s a near negligible difference between the two centers, and if Jarnkrok can win pucks for Forsberg and Arvidsson to play with, that gives the Predators a chance to keep the duo’s offense alive even in Johansen’s absence.

Jarnkrok has shown throughout these playoffs that he can play on a productive line, too. He has spent almost the entire post-season skating alongside James Neal, who has five goals and seven points throughout the playoffs. Skating together, Jarnkrok and Neal have out-possessed and out-chanced opponents since the start of the post-season. If Jarnkrok can keep that type of play up with Forsberg and Arvidsson, two red-hot scorers, it can help swing this series in Nashville’s favor.

There’s no denying that losing Johansen is a serious blow to the Predators’ chances, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. Nashville still has a top-flight defensive corps that can step up even further and shut down everything that comes their way, while the other pivots — Fisher, Sissons, Fiddler or whoever fills out the bottom six — can find ways to make it work with new mates. The wingers, from Forsberg and Arvidsson to the likes of P-A Parenteau and Pontus Aberg, still provide a healthy amount of depth, too. 

And if Jarnkrok can take on the top-line role and find his form alongside Nashville's top duo, there’s no reason why the Predators can’t fight their way to their first-ever Stanley Cup final.

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