Theme: “The reward of one duty is the power to fulfill another.”
-- George Eliot
When Marcus Johansson stepped onto the ice for his first shift of the 2011-2012 season he was centering a line that had Alexander Semin and Troy Brouwer on his wings. After a promising rookie season in which he finished 13-14-27, plus-2 in 69 games (ranked in the top dozen rookie point getters among forwards that season), he was slotted on the second line. It was a chance for the youngster to fill a role that was a problem for the Capitals for years, finding a reliable, productive second line center.
By the time the curtain came down on the regular season, and Johansson skated his last game and his last shift, he was centering Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich on his first shift and was out there with Ovechkin on his last one. In between Nicklas Backstrom lost half a season to a concussion, and Johansson found himself in this situation, a promotion by necessity.
Although Johansson would finish the 2011-2012 regular season as the Caps’ third leading scorer (tied with Dennis Wideman with 46 points), his logging heavy minutes as the Caps’ top line center while Nicklas Backstrom was missing time following his concussion was a bit too much. Johansson played in 43 games after Backstrom left the lineup to close the season, going 7-17-24, minus-4. He was 2-10-12, minus-5 in his last 20 games. When you consider that when he left the lineup Backstrom was 13-29-42 in 38 games (a 28-63-91 pace over 82 games), Johansson did not provide the production the Caps needed from their top line center when he was occupying that spot.
That is an unfair comparison to make, of course. Marcus Johansson is not Nicklas Backstrom at this point in his career. But one could not help but think Johansson’s sophomore season was a bit of a disappointment. The optics of his season did not look impressive; he seemed more tentative and less dynamic in his performance, especially as the season went on. But there is a number that sticks out:
Although Johansson ramped up his point-production, his play at the other end left something to be desired. In his rookie season he was on ice for 40 goals in 1,016 minutes of total ice time, or 2.36 goals per 60 minutes of ice time. In 2011-2012 that goals on-ice number jumped to 62 goals in 1,344 minutes of ice time, or 2.77 goals per 60 minutes of ice time, a 17.1 percent jump. On a team that played with a “defense-first” philosophy under Dale Hunter, that is a disappointing number.
Johansson finished in a tie for 11th in points among rookie forwards in 2011-2012. Of the 13 rookie forwards who finished with as many or more points than Johansson in his rookie season, do you know how many of them finished with more points than Johansson in his sophomore season? Five: Logan Couture, Derek Stepan, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Brad Marchand. Know how many of that rookie crop improved his point total more than the plus-19 from Johansson?
One… Eberle (plus-33).
One can make too much of this “disappointment” notion.
Cuz, I’m not the sharpest ax in the shed, but I know that the game is played at both ends. Look at that “tens” thing Peerless did for Johansson. He was a minus-8 in his last 32 games, and he was a minus-6 in 14 playoff games. He was on ice for more goals against than any Caps forward in the playoffs (13 of the 30 goals scored against the Caps), and no Caps skater was on for more (he was tied with defenseman Dennis Wideman).
The Big Question… Can Johansson use the hard lessons learned in 2011-2012 to become a solid second line contributor in the 2012-2013 season?
Consider this. At the 18:30 mark of the third period of Game 7 last spring against the New York Rangers, with the Caps down a goal, Marcus Johansson took the ice for his last shift of the season. He did not do it as a center. He was playing right wing to Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin on the left side. When play was stopped at the 19:20 mark on an offside call, the Caps had not registered a shot attempt on that shift. Johansson skated to the bench in favor of Brooks Laich to take the ensuing faceoff. Was that last shift something symbolic? Something meaningful with respect to Johansson’s season?
Not in an obvious way, perhaps, but it did suggest that after 96 games (82 in the regular season and 14 in the playoffs) Johansson had not come as far as one might have hoped. But that was in no small way a product of being thrust into a role that was outside his comfort level, given the state of his development. He just was not ready to be a first-line center, and in the end was given a wing slot when things were most desperate for the team. It was not a demotion by any means, but it was the sort of sideways movement that seemed to be his season. The opportunity that results is that Johansson had a lot thrown at him in his sophomore season, and it might have been a blessing if he can take some of what he learned from that back to being a second-line center.
In the end…
Marcus Johansson will not be the second-line center for the Capitals this season unless misfortune strikes the club. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro have the first and second spots marked in pen. But Johansson will be only 22 years old on the scheduled opening night. If one looks at the long term, he could be that second line center. Why? Well, if you peer through the rose-colored glasses of memory, his game can resemble that of a countryman who played for this franchise in the 1980’s.
Johansson can be a 15-20 goal scorer, a 50-55 point producer, a solid two-way presence who does the right things the right way. If you account for the different nature of the games in the 1980’s and the 20-teens, what you might see through those glasses in Marcus Johansson is Bengt Gustafsson. And if taking on the duties of a first line center last season allows him to be a “Gustafsson” type of player on the second line in the future, it will have been worth the hard lessons learned.
Projection: 81 games, 14-27-41, plus-2
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