Theme: "There is no royal road to anything, one thing at a time, all things in succession. That which grows fast, withers as rapidly. That which grows slowly, endures."
-- J. G. Holland
Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2009 entry draft, right between Tim Erixon and Jordan Caron. Today, Johansson has played in more games that both combined (183 to 137), has three times as many goals (33 to 11), has almost three times as many points (95 to 32). In fact, out of the 2009 draft class Johansson ranks fifth in goals (behind John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, and Ryan O’Reilly) and fifth in points (behind the same four players).
And yet, for a number of Caps fans, it is not enough. He’s too soft, he’s the passenger on the Backstrom-Ovechkin express, he’s…something that just does not seem right. He is also a player who will not turn 23 years old until the first week of the NHL season. Part of the problem might derive from the fact that when Johansson was drafted out of Farjestads Bk Karlstad in Sweden, his countrymate Nicklas Backstrom had just finished posting a sophomore season that ended 22-66-88. To that point since the 2004-2005 lockout, only four players recorded more points in their sophomore season: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Eric Staal, and Evgeni Malkin. Caps fans might have been thinking about a decade or more of center play with a distinct and high-powered Swedish influence.
It was probably disappointing to discover that Johansson and Backstrom were as different as players as their hair color was. Backstrom was putting together a resume that looked like a classic playmaking center – heavy on assists, being a distributor who could chip in goals – with a solid defensive aspect to his game. Johansson did not move up through the Swedish hierarchy of leagues quite as quickly, was not drafted as high as Backstrom (who was taken with the fourth overall pick in 2004), did not post numbers equal to Backstrom’s rookie season (Backstrom was a Calder Trophy finalist), and was giving evidence of being more of a player who depended on his speed and skating ability to create what offense he could.
What he has in common with Backstrom in their early careers, other than the country of their birth, is steady improvement. His goals per game has been a constant (0.19, 0.18, and 0.18 in his three seasons), but his assists have increased from 0.20/game to 0.40 to 0.47 over those same three seasons. Part of that, no doubt, is skating on a line alongside uber-finisher Alex Ovechkin. However, Johansson has been efficient in his own right, shooting to a career 14.2 percent.
Johansson, in a quiet way, gave opponents grief last season. Only Alex Ovechkin among Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games drew more penalties per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (1.5) than Johansson (1.3). The delta between his penalties drawn and penalties taken per 60 minutes (+1.2) was far and away the best among Caps forwards. That ability should not be underestimated, given the ensuing results on Capitals power plays – they led the league in efficiency.
At the other end, after he was on the ice for 10 of 28 goals scored against the Caps in the 2013 season over his first seven games (35.1 percent), he was on ice for only 15 of 70 goals scored against the team over his last 27 games (21.4 percent).
You’d sure like to see better possession numbers out of him. He was seventh among 15 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games last year in relative Corsi (difference between Corsi/on-ice and Corsi/off-ice) at 5-on-5. And he had the worst team on-ice save percentage among all forwards at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). Someone has to be last, and it’s not all Johansson’s fault, but it sure would be nice to have all the offense with the top line on the ice coming from the Caps.
You’d like to see him shoot more, too. He had nine fewer shots than Wojtek Wolski in seven more games played. For a guy who finished fourth among all Caps forwards in shooting percentage, it might be good if he took more advantage, especially since his shots per game was 20 percent below what he did in his rookie season.
The Big Question… Can Johansson develop as a threat on his own on the left side to take some pressure off his linemates?
Johansson’s goals per game in his first three seasons in the league have been almost unchanged (0.19, 0.18, 0.18), this despite his shots per game dropping from 1.48 in his rookie season to 1.13 in his second season and 1.13 last year. One might chalk up last year’s result to their being only so many shots available on any line, and Alex Ovechkin records most of them on the top line (we don’t subscribe to that notion, but it sounds good). Johansson could carve out a bigger slice of shots by expanding the population of shots on goal. That means he is going to have to become stouter, bolder, better able to fend off checks and win battles for pucks when they occur to maintain or gain possession for his line.
In the end…
Marcus Johansson is a tantalizing player in this respect. Last year was more or less two separate mini-seasons within its own mini-season. In the first, he played in nine of the Caps first 11 games and went 1-0-1, minus-7. Small wonder; he was suffering the effects of a concussion, likely sustained when he collided with Alex Ovechkin in training camp in January. Johansson returned after finally acknowledging the physical problem and sitting out 12 games. After his return he finished 5-16-21, plus-10 in 25 games, a 16-52-67, plus-33 pace over 82 games. Yes, it was a mini-season in a mini-season, but that is what makes it tantalizing. One wonders if that was merely a blip on Johansson’s resume or if he is poised to take the next big step in his developmental arc.
Johansson might not be progressing as fast as some Caps fans like, but his improvement has been steady and consistent. He compares favorably in terms of his career offensive production to date with his draft cohort. He is not a dominating player, but he does not have to be on this team. He complements his linemates well and has the skating skill to carve out a bigger role on that line. It would be the next step on Johansson’s royal road of development.
Projection: 77 games, 16-35-51, plus-7
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America