Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson

“Your big opportunity may be right where you are now.”
-- Napoleon Hill

Marcus Johansson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2009 as a center.  It was that position which he played in his early career with the club.  He was not, it seemed, the answer to a perennial problem – who would be the team’s second line center – and he was moved to left wing on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. 

The move was not without its painful moments.  Johansson suffered a concussion in a collision with Ovechkin in a 2012 training camp session, an injury that would eventually cost Johansson 12 games in the regular season.  Since returning to the lineup after that concussion Johansson is 13-52-65 in 106 games over two seasons, a 10-40-50 scoring pace per 82 games, almost exclusively as a left winger.

That might make for an argument to keep Johansson at left wing, but the roster is in flux with a new head coach – Barry Trotz – calling the shots.  Ovechkin might be returned to the left side on the top line.  That move would ripple through the rest of the lineup with more options facing Johansson than perhaps any other player.  Johansson could be moved to the left side of the second line.  He could play in the middle of the second line, depending on how the Evgeny Kuznetsov experiment at center works.  He could be dropped to the middle of the third line where he would assume the duties previously fulfilled by Eric Fehr, a natural right winger.  And, if Trotz’ intention that Ovechkin develops to play both sides plays out,  Johansson could find himself back on the left side of the top.

Fearless’ Take…

Marcus Johansson is one of five players in his 2010 rookie class with at least 40 career goals, at least 90 career assists, and at least 130 career points (Derek Stepan, Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall are the others).  Last season he was 5-27-32 in 37 wins, recording points in 23 of those wins.  As impressive as, say, Nicklas Backstrom (14-45-59 in 38 wins, points in 32 of them)?  No, but it isn’t a points pace far off a pace of a Daniel Sedin (13-18-31 in 32 wins).

Then there are the penalties.  The seemingly utter lack of them.  Over the last four seasons, among all skaters playing in at least 175 games, no player has logged fewer penalty minutes than Johansson (26).  Last season Johansson was sent off twice for minor penalties.  Not twice in one game, twice all season.  Two minors (high-sticking and hooking, for the record), that’s it.  Little wonder he finished sixth in the voting for the Lady Byng Trophy (including a first place vote) for gentlemanly play. 

Cheerless’ Take…

Two-point-five percent?  I ain’t no math whiz, but I know that’s not a big number.  And that was Johansson’s shooting percentage at even strength last season.  Two goals on 80 shots.  Neither was in a regulation win (one Gimmick win, against Minnesota on November 7th, one overtime loss; against Philadelphia on March 2nd).  His overall shooting percentage for the season (7.5 percent) was barely half of that over his first three seasons (14.2 percent).  His plus-minus on-ice per 60 minutes was second worst among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games (-0.89).  Only Alex Ovechkin was worse (-1.45).  It was part of a whole first line meltdown.  Nicklas Backstrom was third worst (-0.86).  It was a team effort.

The Big Question… Will Marcus Johansson take the next step in his development?

Last year we asked this question in a slightly different way… “Can Johansson develop as a threat on his own on the left side to take some pressure off his linemates?”  Five goals, a 7.5 percent shooting percentage, 2.5 percent at even strength, a minus-21.  He didn’t answer that question in a way in which Caps fans might have hoped.  Johansson will start this season with more than 250 games of regular season under his belt (263 to be precise).  His apprenticeship is coming to an end.  He needs to be less of a passenger on a scoring line and more a player who can drive or create play on his own.

The uncertainty over just where Johansson will play muddies this issue somewhat.  That he can play a number of positions means that he might be called upon to play those positions.  If Barry Trotz moves Alex Ovechkin from wing to wing, that means another player (or more) moves, and Johansson might be just that player (although Brooks Laich also might fall into this category).

Johansson has demonstrated he can be a 50-point player (his points pace over his last 100-plus games).  Can he now: a) do it without the benefit of skating on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, and b) do it consistently?  That would be the next step in his development. 

In the end…

What is the Swedish word for “enigma?” Maybe “mystery” is a better word.  Despite those 263 games of regular season experience and the fact that he ranks so highly among his draft and rookie classes in career points, it is still hard to get a clear picture of just how much of his performance is due to talent and development, and how much is due to circumstance (playing with highly skilled linemates).

In 2014-2015 Johansson seems likely to come out from under that Backstrom-Ovechkin shield.  He might be asked to be the driver of a line (second or third line center).  It would be early to dismiss the likelihood that he can succeed in that role, given that his is more or less two seasons removed (and almost 120 games) removed from playing center on a consistent basis.

A lot of things have to go right for a hockey team to succeed, some of them within its power to control, others not so much.  With respect to Johansson there are two parts to this issue.  There is the matter of where head coach Barry Trotz chooses to deploy him.  That is not a matter under the player’s control.  Then there is the matter of taking advantage of the opportunity, no matter where he is deployed.  That is something over which Johansson can exert more control.  With four seasons and 250-plus games of experience, he has to take the training wheels off.  He has to be a contributing member of this squad on his own terms.  His big opportunity is where he is right now.  We just don’t quite know where he is right now on the ice yet.

Projection: 81 games, 15-33-48, plus-4

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America