TORONTO – Andreas Johnsson can finally breathe easy.
The longest season of his life is over, culminating with fireworks, confetti and a never-ending series of hugs from his Toronto Marlies teammates. It was a transformative 273-day journey that ended in jubilation on Thursday night with the organization’s first Calder Cup championship and Johnsson being named MVP of the American Hockey League playoffs.
“It’s been a lot of emotions going up and down,” he said after a 6-1 series-clinching win over the Texas Stars in Game 7. “I’m happy to stand here now.”
He might as well have skated off the ice at Ricoh Coliseum and tossed his Marlies sweater to an adoring fan. He certainly won’t be needing it any longer.
The 23-year-old Swede left no doubt about where he stands in the organization this spring. As Mike Babcock watched time tick down from a box at centre ice, the biggest question in his mind had to be just how high up his Maple Leafs lineup Johnsson might find himself in training camp.
He was used largely as a fourth-liner during his first NHL callup – albeit one who saw a fair amount of time on the power play – but it’s clear there’s much more to the former seventh-round pick than that.
Johnsson pulled the Marlies through their toughest moments this post-season, putting up three points in a do-or-die game against Utica immediately after being sent back from the Leafs and adding three more with everything on the line Thursday.
“I mean Johnny all playoffs was amazing,” said teammate Travis Dermott. “You watch him and you don’t think there’s any way he’s going to play another game here in this league.”
“He’s a special, special kid,” added Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “He’s taken the long road to road to get here. He’s another example that it doesn’t matter when you’re drafted or even if you’re drafted, you just keep working and the cream rises to the top eventually.”
Johnsson wound up being the crown jewel of a close-knit Marlies team that won 69 of the 96 games it played this season. The roster was a mix of journeymen and aspiring pros, with a few surefire NHLers like he and Dermott added in.
He finished these playoffs with 10 goals and 24 points in just 16 games – bringing his AHL season totals to 36 goals and 78 points in 70 games played.
“This season it clicked for him right around December,” said Keefe. “Just offensively, the game seemed like it started to slow down for him at this level and it just became to a point where it was obvious he didn’t belong here.”
It could propel him to a spot alongside some of the big club’s big scorers. Few outside the inner circle of the Marlies would have predicted that potential for Johnsson when training camp opened back on Sept. 14.
The Leafs are in need a push from within with wingers James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov set to walk away in free agency this summer, while Johnsson is due for a new contract that will require him to clear waivers before returning to the AHL.
Toronto won’t be trying its luck.
What impressed Keefe most was the positive attitude Johnsson maintained after returning from a 15-game stint with the Maple Leafs that included dressing for Game 7 in Boston over Komarov. For the player, it was a no-brainer.
“It was like coming back to a family and you don’t want to let them down,” he said. “You get energy from them and I hope I give them energy, too.”
He brought it Thursday in a game that would have haunted the Marlies to lose. The night turned on the opening goal against Texas stalwart Mike McKenna, who had stolen a Game 6 win in this building 48 hours earlier.
It was a goal almost entirely of Johnsson’s own making. He turned the puck back at the top of the offensive zone from the onrushing Roope Hintz and then fired it towards the net. He put it past McKenna while diving to connect on a Carl Grundstrom pass.
“Big players have to step up in big games,” said Marlies veteran Colin Greening. “He drove the net, he outskated the guy and he almost had to kind of lunge at the puck to get it in. He made that little extra effort, and that’s tough sometimes when you’re playing Game 7 of the fourth round.”
Johnsson gave everyone a chance to exhale in the third period. First he spun and put a saucer pass over two Texas sticks and right into Grundstrom’s wheelhouse and then he added his second of the night off the rush to make it 4-1.
The party was on.
It followed the Swedish league title Johnsson won with his hometown Frolunda club in 2016 – part of a half-decade of building blocks he’s laid down since the Leafs selected him 202nd overall in the 2013 draft.
“He has worked really hard,” his father, Jonas, said during a recent interview. “I think the development just as a person [has been big] – to move to Canada and take care of yourself and everything like that.”
Friends have always seen high-end potential in him.
Marlies teammate Calle Rosen first played with Johnsson at age 16 and remembers him as a dominant offensive player every step along the way. Dallas Stars defenceman John Klingberg is a childhood buddy who never thought a low draft position would be too much for him to overcome.
“He’s such a good talent on the puck, he has a nose for the goal and he can make plays as well,” said Klingberg. “He’s a little smaller guy, but he’s really fast and he’s pretty strong. Strong on his skates, strong on his stick. Just a strong body.”
It was an undiagnosed asthma issue that contributed to Johnsson falling all the way to the bottom of his draft class. He went through a lethargic year without knowing he suffered from exercise-induced bronchoconstriction – a narrowing of the airwaves during strenuous activity – and only realized there was a problem while doing two-a-day workouts right before Leafs scout Thommie Bergman took a flier on him.
“We were on the ice and then we ran, and I was so slow and I couldn’t really breathe and I was like ‘this is not usual,”’ Johnsson recalled. “[The trainer said] ‘either you go out partying too much or you have something really allergic going on here.’
“And I was like, ‘I don’t drink that much.”’
He’s earned the right to enjoy a few cocktails now. This season spanned nine months and saw Johnsson play meaningful games in June for the first time ever.
“It’s been a long year,” he said. “Honestly, my expectation would be that I would be tired, but I have more energy and I feel like I can play at least one month more maybe.”
Fortunately, that won’t be necessary.
As a proud Swede, he understands the value of Three Crowns: His first arrived in Frolunda and the second was claimed here. It won’t be long before he gets to work on a third one with the Maple Leafs.
Fall is just around the corner.