The NHL doesn’t quite have a “Mr. Irrelevant” equivalent; the nickname and “award” given to the player selected last in the NFL’s annual entry draft. All the same, it’s really interesting when you see players that flirt with the bottom of a draft class blossom into legitimate hockey players, especially if it takes a little while to make their presence known.
Andreas Johnsson, drafted tenth from the bottom in 2013, seems well on his way to becoming one of those players. Though, one would argue that there’s never really been an irrelevance stage to speak of with him.
When Toronto drafted Johnsson, there was probably a case to be made that the 5’10, 180-pound winger was already going a bit too low to begin with. That year, Johnsson put 54 points in 42 games playing in the J20 SuperElit; Sweden’s equivalent of major junior. That doesn’t sound like a significant needle-mover a number, but that didn’t make it any less impressive; five years later, Johnsson’s 54 points remain in the Top 25 seasons ever posted by an Under-19 player in the league. It wasn’t the most exciting story in the league; ironically, the talk of the league was a year-away, history chasing young forward by the name of William Nylander, but that didn’t make the mark any less impressive.
Much more importantly, though, was the organization that he was doing it with. Johnsson was a product of Frolunda HC, who run what can be argued to be the most thorough, youth-to-pro, player-focused development program in the hockey world. The team established is reputation in the 80s and 90s with the established careers of Calle Johansson and Daniel Alfredsson, and since then, it’s been hit after hit after hit.
Henrik Lundqvist (and his brother Joel). Alex Steen. Loui Erksson. Erik Karlsson (and the other Erik Karlsson). John Klingberg (and brother Karl). This summer, Frolunda will have one of their players get drafted into the Top-10 of an Entry Draft for the first time, and it’ll be one that’s a no-doubter to go first; generational defensive prospect Rasmus Dahlin (a good read on both him and how the program has been tailored to him can be found here). The Leafs are already benefitting greatly from a player who stopped through Frolunda along the way in Frederik Andersen, who played his final season before jumping to North America with them, leading the SHL in GAA, SV%, and Shutouts.
Johnsson seems poised to be their next product to graduate to the NHL, and while it’s taken some time for him for him to get there, the warning signs were there.
In his Draft+1, Johnsson led all U20 players in the SHL in scoring, edging out then-teammate and today-Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alex Wennberg. Johnsson outscored Wennberg by three points with six games in hand, despite being picked six rounds behind him that summer and being two months younger. Johnsson was named rookie of the year for his efforts, a distinction that has almost always been awarded to players who eventually make the NHL.
In the following year, he picked up 22 goals in 55 games, the fifth highest in the league despite everyone in front of him being at least six years older. He finished third in U24 points, with the to players in front him both being a couple years older (and both future NHLers; Tim Heed plays for San Jose and Mattias Janmark for the Dallas Stars. Johnsson truly made his mark this year outside of league play, however; in the Champions Hockey League, which pits many of Europe’s top teams against each other, Johnsson put up an outrageous 11 goals in 12 games, officially solidifying him as a prospect to watch.
In 2015/16, his Draft+3, all doubt was removed. Johnsson added a bit of puck distribution to his game, and became one of the best players in the league, finishing sixth in points with 44 in 52 games. That total was eight points better than any other U24 player. He parlayed that into team success as well, winning the SHL and the Champion’s League. It was as good a time as any to show North America what he could do.
Just two games into his North American career, Johnsson’s trajectory was put into massive jeopardy. A brutal hit in the Calder Cup Playoffs by Dan Kelly; to this day in the conversation for the ugliest, most malicious hit I’ve seen as-it-happened, knocked Johnsson out and caused him a serious concussion. Such a serious one, in fact, that he didn’t leave his hotel room for over a week while the club judged how bad it was, and took weeks to get back to regularly walking or working out.
Many worried that it would be a life and career de-railer, that he would never be the same after it. You could obviously see why; historically, a blow like that tends to make a big difference.
The second attempt at starting his AHL career raised those suspicions to those casually observing. He burst out of the gate in 2016/17’s opening weekend, with three goals in his first two games, but was only able to muster up 2 assists in 14 games that spanned over the following month and a half. Eventually, though, he started to gain the momentum that many had hoped he had in him. Like many others on the team that season at that point, his biggest “issue” was bad puck luck; while his personal percentages for the first few months weren’t horrible, they were boosted by that first weekend and some success on the powerplay. Having struggling linemates, though, made it harder for him to convert plays into goals and points at that stage.
But once the team started rolling, so did he. Johnsson finished the regular season with 42 points in his final 59 games, including 29 in his final 34. In the playoffs, he scored six goals in eleven games. Little by little, the flashes of the Johnsson we all longed to see cross the ocean started to show. Though with that said, there was still another gear to hit to completely return from to being the stealth top prospect he once was, especially now that Toronto had other, younger, and in many cases, better kids to distract them.
Enter Johnny on the Spot.
It wouldn’t be fair to call what Johnsson’s doing this year a revelation because it doesn’t deviate much from the upside he was thought to have to begin with. Maybe realization is a better term, but whatever you want to call it here, other teams are likely to counter it with another term: terrifying.
If Johnsson was in just about any other organization, this article would likely be an evaluation of his NHL rookie season. In the preseason games that the Leafs dressed him in, he looked calm, composed, in control, and happy to roll with the big boys. It wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world, given that this is already his sixth season of playing pro hockey against men, but to see how close he was to hanging with Toronto’s winger depth at that stage was a very, very strong sign for the road ahead. Alas, he wasn’t better to the point of stealing a spot from a veteran, particularly his defensive ability, both at even strength and on the penalty kill, being curiosity points but not yet known quantities.
Instead, we’re talking about a player who could probably make a good case for AHL MVP this year. This morning, Johnsson sits 4th in the league scoring race, with 26 goals (trailing only Valentin Zykov of Charlotte) and 28 assists for 54 points in as many games. Historically speaking, being an AHL point per game at 23 isn’t a guarantee of NHL success, but it’s still a pretty good sign that you’re worth a look.
What’s impressive, though, is how he’s done it. 18 of those goals have come at even strength, so he’s not just juicing his powerplay numbers. He’s had linemates to help him, spending much of the year with Miro Aaltonen and Kasperi Kapanen, but they (and anyone that’s been attached to him since) have been used as the go-to matchup line, scoring these goals and getting these points against some of the league’s toughest competition; on a line that is the AHL equivalent of Marleau-Kadri-Marner on steroids, Johnsson’s been the Marleau of the group.
Quick. Aware. Elusive. Defensively strong. And unbelievably aware of where to find a puck in dangerous areas, and able to get it into the back of the net in a flash. The results seem to only be getting better too; his numbers since the all-star break (9 goals, 16 assists, and 48 shots on goal in his last 16 games) are video game-like, and he’s somehow looked more comfortable and confident with every week that passes.
Johnsson’s emergence as the goal and point getter we hoped he could be has made him a very attractive option as a support scorer next year. With James van Riemsdyk due for a new contract in July and a long-term likely being a requirement, you have to think that a player that can wreak havoc with loose pucks, albeit in a bit of a different way, has a decent opportunity to usurp that spot in the lineup next season. Mike Babcock’s frustration with his second powerplay unit and suggestion that schemes could change might allow for someone like Johnsson to come in at some point and poach close-up goals in a different fashion than the typical deflection they’ve relied on so much lately.
What might make that even more likely, though, is what he’s shown on the other side of special teams. For all the yapping we do about Babcock’s obsession with grit and work ethic, being able to contribute to the penalty kill seems to be the easiest key to his heart; Roman Polak, Leo Komarov, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev have all been lightning rods in the debate room this year, but they all share the mutual thread of being on successful PK units. Travis Dermott has been a revelation this season, but what got him up to the Leafs, besides his stellar all-around play, was the success that the Marlies PK was having with him on it. Kasperi Kapanen forced Matt Martin out because he could kill penalties and Martin, for everything else he brings, doesn’t contribute to special teams at all.
Since Kapanen was called up, Johnsson’s been used more and more on the penalty kill. I asked Sheldon Keefe about his usage there yesterday, and his evaluation of the time he’s spent there was very positive:
“I think he’s done well there. I think he always has been a good penalty killer for us. We didn’t use him a lot there last season, just because there was so many other guys. But any time we did, he did a nice job, and it was the same this year. We had a lot of other guys that we were giving those minutes to. When Kapanen and [Nikita] Soshnikov were here, they were getting a lot of those opportunities, there was not as many minutes to go around, but I feel that’s a part of his game, that he can do and do it well, and something that he could bring if he were to get an opportunity beyond this level.”
To me, that’s the tiebreaker that pushes him into the league. Skill is skill and instinct is instinct, but there is such an emphasis on versatility on this team that being a scorer that can still contribute in other ways should his stick go cold is a prime position to be in.
The good news for Johnsson? He’ll get a chance to prove all this on the big stage soon. This morning, the Leafs called him up for the first time in his career, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he’ll get his first game tomorrow against Dallas. Hopefully, its an opportunity he’ll make the most out of; and perhaps one that ends up being permanent.