“What I appreciate is acknowledging to the audience that I think they have brains.”
-- Lily Tomlin
The Washington Capitals’ Marcus Johansson is fifth among active Capitals in games played (419) since the 2004-2005 lockout. Only Alex Ovechkin (839), Nicklas Backstrom (652), Karl Alzner (509), and John Carlson (454) are higher on that list. If he appears in 81 games this season he will become the 27th player in the history of the franchise to appear in at least 500 games (assuming Carlson gets there first). He will have appeared in more games for the Caps than Bob Carpenter (490) and Craig Laughlin (428), more than Jason Chimera (490) and Alexander Semin (469). With three seasons of at least 80 games played by age 25, only Mike Gartner (4), John Carlson (4), and Bob Carpenter (5) had more in Caps history.
No one has done it in a quieter way than Johansson, who for the last five seasons has average more than half a point per game, who has more power play goals scored (19) than any other Capital except Ovechkin (97) and Troy Brouwer (30), who has more game-winning goals (13, tied with Nicklas Backstrom) than any other Capital except for Ovechkin (36) and Brouwer (16). About those game-winning goals, the seven he posted last year almost doubled his career total (to 15, including the two he had as a rookie) and was second on the team to Alex Ovechkin (8). Only ten players in the league had more than Johansson.
Johansson’s consistency persisted at an even more granular level. Last season, Johansson went as many as four games without a point only once. He also fared well against good competition; he was 3-9-12, plus-1, in 17 games against Eastern Conference teams reaching the postseason. He recorded eight penalty minutes in 36 home games and eight penalty minutes in 38 road games. He had 22 points at home, 24 on the road.
What is more, Johansson will just turn 26 the week before the 2016-2017 regular season starts. And, his $4.583 million cap hit is in an age and salary cap neighborhood that includes Kyle Palmieri and Tyler Ennis (in fairness, it also includes Brad Marchand and Max Pacioretty).
Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, Marcus Johansson is one of two players to have appeared in at least 375 games and recorded fewer than 55 penalty minutes (Ryan O’Reilly is the other). He is one of only ten players to do it in the post-1967 expansion era. And, in one respect he has taken advice to heart. Johansson has been a reluctant shooter from time to time. That has changed over the last two seasons. He will never be the Gatling gun that is Alex Ovechkin, but his shots per game have increased in each of the last four seasons, starting with a baseline of 1.13 shots per game in 2011-2012 and increasing to 1.78 shots per game – a career high – last season. He was sixth on the team in that statistic in 2015-2016.
We could go way out into left field for a weird Johansson shooting number. Six times last season he scored on his only shot on goal in the game. Four times that shot came in the third period, once into an empty net, and a fifth was in the last minute of the second period of the game. In his six seasons in the league, no Capital forward has more games without a shot on goal than Johansson (114). And, he has had issues with possession numbers. The 2015-2016 season was his fifth in six seasons in which he finished under 50 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, both overall and in tied-score situations (numbers from Corsica.hockey). Then there is the matter of playoff efficiency. Only once in six regular seasons has Johansson posted a shooting percentage under 12.7 percent. On the other hand, only once in five postseasons has he finished with a shooting percentage of higher than 8.0 percent. His career postseason shooting percentage (7.6) is not much more than half that of his career regular season percentage (12.8).
The Big Question… Is last year’s “big question” still the big question?
Last year we asked, “What is Johansson’s upside, and have we seen it?” And then Johansson proceeded to post a regular season that looked almost exactly like his previous three full seasons (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season). In those three previous full seasons he averaged 14 goals. He had 17 in 2015-2016 (although in just 74 games, compared to an average of 81 games the previous three full seasons). He finished with 46 points, compared to an average of 46 points the previous three full seasons. Johansson did it playing most of his 5-on-5 minutes with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams; the previous season he played most of his 5-on-5 minutes with Kuznetsov and Troy Brouwer. It makes one wonder if this is the ceiling of Johansson’s production.
In the end…
Johansson has shuttled between center and left wing, and between the first and second lines for much of his career. It is a strange sort of regularity that accompanies his offensive consistency. Generic top-six forward, able to be plugged in wherever needed, he puts up 45-50 points per 82 games. This season could be something of a departure for Johansson in that with the stability in the middle (centers Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Lars Eller) and on the left side on the top two lines (Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky), Johnasson would appear to be plugged in on the left side of the third line on a more permanent basis (assuming Burakovsky does not slump).
What could be different for Johansson is that he could be the offensive anchor on the Caps’ third line, a role he has not had to play in his six seasons to date. In the past, he could be the quietly effective (to a point) winger on lines with more dynamic personalities and talents – Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line, Kuznetsov on the second. Now, he is likely to be matched with Lars Eller, himself a player who has shuttled between center and wing in his career but who is likely to center the Caps’ third line (but who has never recorded more than 30 points in a season), and whoever the Caps decide should man the right side. It that respect, it is entirely possible that Johansson could post numbers very similar to those he has had over his career and yet be a more effective player for the teammates he plays with. He will not be the silent partner of an Ovechkin or a Backstrom or a Kuznetsov. Those who have watched Johansson closely over his career might see a better player, even if the numbers don’t immediately suggest it.
Projection: 79 games, 17-28-45, plus-10
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America