It started in the fall. In 263 regular season games before this season, Marcus Johansson – a scoring line forward for much of his career to date with the Washington Capitals – averaged only 1.29 shots on goal per game. Among 19 Capitals who played in at least 100 games in the four seasons Johansson skated for the Caps before this one, Johansson ranked 13th in shots per game. That was fewer than defensemen Mike Green (2.40) and John Carlson (2.04), and it was fewer than forward grinders Jason Chimera (2.14), Joel Ward (1.36), and Matt Hendricks (1.30). A scoring line forward that shoots so infrequently does not score very much, even if he is a relatively efficient shooting player (12.1 percent in his first four seasons).
With a new head coach though, that was going to change. Barry Trotz wanted Johansson to shoot more as part of a general philosophy:
“You get the puck, and you’re looking for the next play. And I think when you have a shoot-first mentality, you get the puck and you’re looking to throw it towards the cage. They’re so skilled and so good at it — if it’s not there, last-second, change your mind, make a quick pass — they’re that good.”
Johansson was a good student. In his first 15 games he recorded eight goals on 37 shots, capped by a two-goal, eight shot effort in a 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Veterans Day. He broke his career best in shots on goal in a season (107) in Game 63. He broke his career best in goals (14) in Game 64.
His assimilation of more of a “shoot-first” mentality enabled Johansson to finish with career highs in shots on goal (138), shots on goal per game (1.68, best since his rookie season of 1.48), and goals (20). Curiously enough, he accomplished this while posting a shooting percentage (14.5) substantially better than his career percentage (12.1).
Drilling down through the numbers, his Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was the best of his career (53.2, besting the 51.4 he posted in 2012-2013). His Scoring chances/on-ice percentage was the best of his career (plus-47, better than his plus-10 in 2012-2013), and his individual scoring chances at 5-on-5 (122) almost equaled the total he posted over the previous two seasons (132; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
Johansson’s history had been one of a willingness to shoot when in close, but his increased shooting frequency was more a product of calling his own number from farther out, as this graphic from sportingcharts.com comparing last season to this illustrates:
His average shooting distance was 24.87 feet this season, compared to 22.65 feet in 2013-2014.
The increase in shooting frequency came despite his getting fewer minutes in which to do it. His 16:49 in average ice time was the second lowest of his five-year career. And, the ice time came with different dominant partners. In 2013-2014, Johansson skated most frequently with Alex Ovechkin (56.2 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time) and Nicklas Backstrom (54.2 percent) among forwards. This season, his most frequent partners were Troy Brouwer (60.0 percent) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (36.9 percent; numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).
Fearless’ Take: Marcus Johansson was one of three 20-goal scorers for the Caps this season (Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer were the others). In doing so, Johansson was rather consistent. He posted goals in each of his eight ten-game segments, and he closed with a rush, recording six goals over his last 19 games. Then there was the matter of scoring goals in general. Does that matter more than assists? Perhaps for Johansson, this season, it did. When scoring at least one goal without an assist, the Caps had a record of 9-2-3. When recording at least one assist without scoring a goal, Washington was 11-6-3. “Small sample size” applies here, but shooting more – and scoring more on his own – did not hurt the club.
Cheerless’ Take: Sometimes the kid in class backslides a bit. Johansson recorded 76 shots in his first four ten-game segments, but he had only 62 in his last four. His 1.47 shots per game in those last four segments was roughly his production in his rookie year (1.48).
Odd Johansson Fact: Marcus Johansson did not record a single penalty minute in his first four ten-game segments. He had at least one penalty charged to him in each of his last four segments. Not that it was a torrent of penalties; he finished the season with only ten penalty minutes.
Game to Remember: November 11th versus Columbus. Marcus Johansson was off to a hot start in the 2014-2015 season. He was 6-4-10, plus-1 over his first 13 games, including a four-game points streak that was interrupted in his 14th game, a 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Looking to start a new streak, Johansson wasted little time in doing just that. In the second minute of the contest, Andre Burakovsky peeled the puck off the right wing wall in the Columbus zone and fed Troy Brouwer in the middle of the ice. Brouwer got off a shot just as he was being the Jacket’s Adam Cracknell. The puck leaked through to the low slot where Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg tried to kick it away. Wennberg did not get a good foot into his kick, and the puck squirted free where Johansson settled it with his stick and stuffed it behind goalie Curtis McElhinney to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. Later, with the Caps holding onto a 3-2 lead late in the third period, Johansson struck again, taking a feed from Andre Burakovsky while backing behind the Columbus net. He used his momentum to circle around the cage and stuff a wrap-around inside the post before McElhinney could slide across. It came on Johansson’s seventh shot of the game. He would finish the game with those two goals – one of two two-goal games he had for the season – and eight shots on goal, a career high.
Game to Forget: March 21st versus Winnipeg. The Caps went into Winnipeg in late March on a three-game winning streak, but Johansson was lapsing into old habits. He was 0-1-1 over his previous five games and recorded only six shots in doing so. Against the Jets, the winning streak for the Caps came to an end, and the drought for Johansson continued. He was on ice for each of the Jet’s first two goals, and he failed to record a shot on goal for the second time in three games (he had only one shot attempt). It extended his streak without a goal to six games, a streak that would reach eight before it ended (over which he had nine shots on goal).
Postseason: 1-3-4, plus-2, 5.6 percent shooting percentage.
The playoffs are different from the regular season. The urgency of the situation limits time and space, and puts more pressure on shooters. Its effect on Johansson was significant. He recorded only one goal on 18 shots in 14 games. It was worse. He scored on his first shot of his first game of the postseason and came up empty on his last 17 shots over 13 games. It is part of a disturbing dichotomy in Johansson’s game. There is that 12.8 percent shooting percentage in the regular season for his career, but a 7.5 percent shooting percentage in the postseason, despite his averaging more shots per game (1.52 to 1.38).
In the end…
Marcus Johansson made strides in his development this season. Taking a more self-interested attitude toward shooting the puck was the latest installment in that process. It came despite his skating fewer minutes at evens and with different partners, a reflection of getting more second line minutes this season than the first line minutes he got in 2013-2014. There is still the matter of stepping up his game in the postseason. The lessons, and the fruits of them, that he learned and applied in the regular season did not manifest themselves in the playoffs. Five goals in 44 career playoff games from a scoring line forward has to improve. That might be the next step in his evolution. It is, at least, something to shoot for.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America