TORONTO – “Maybe I don’t,” Mike Babcock has said, with regards to finding Andreas Johnsson ice time when the Toronto Maple Leafs finally begin to play meaningful games again next week.
But where others hear “maybe I don’t,” Johnsson hears “maybe I do.”
The do-everything seventh-round gamble has been given just a nine-game taste of the world’s highest level of hockey and already knows he belongs. If he’s scratched when the Leafs’ second season opens next Thursday, critics will grumble.
“I feel like I’ve showed I can play in this league,” said Johnsson between wide grins following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-2 romp over the Buffalo Sabres Monday.
When Johnsson opened the scoring by setting up shop in front of Chad Johnson’s crease and slamming home a money pass from Tomas Plekanec for his second career NHL goal, this time he acted like he’d been there before, because he had. (“I still get happy,” he confessed.) Later, his work in the high-traffic zone of the Leafs’ second power-play unit helped orchestrate an Auston Matthews strike, and the assist gave Johnsson his first multi-point game in the NHL.
“I feel comfortable with the tempo up here. There’s more skilled players, so I have to be alert all the time. But I feel I’m showing I can play here. I’m happy with my start, but I know I can push out some more,” said Johnsson, who earned his late-season showcase as a point-per-game stud with the AHL Marlies.
“Hockey’s hockey. The thing is, you have to move faster [in the NHL]. They’re bigger and stronger, and there’s more skilled guys. You have to move the puck fast and be quick in every play you do to get away from them. That’s the biggest difference.”
The Swedish army knife did a little bit of everything Monday, firing three shots of his own, blocking two from the bad guys, and skating roughly three minutes for each specialty unit.
“He’s fast, he’s skilled, he’s smart. He makes plays,” gushed Matthews. “He definitely adds another dilemma on that line with his speed and skill. He’s a smart player. He can score and can beat you in different ways.”
When Johnsson is buzzing on the Leafs’ checking line, it has managed a positive Corsi despite starting two-thirds of its shifts in the defensive zone.
“He’s definitely a workhorse,” said defenceman Jake Gardiner. “He’s a good PK’er. Really smart player. He’s stepped right in and looks comfortable.”
A member of the Marlies staff in attendance told Babcock that Johnsson is a self-starter, not the type of player you need to negotiate with every day. He simply brings it.
“He’s ultra-competitive, he works real hard, shows up every day with a great attitude and has energy. You can’t say enough about that,” Babcock said.
“People like that make the people around them better.”
To that end, Exhibit A may be fourth-line centre Plekanec, the wily veteran rental who just now seems to be finding his groove in strange clothes.
“I loved him since Day 1,” Plekanec said on-air. “So easy to play with him.”
Johnsson explains that he and Plekanec
“We want to be quick, be intense and move the puck fast,” Johnsson said. “We’ve found each other a couple times here, so it was nice to score a goal together.”
That Johnsson will have a lineup spot reserved for him for opening night of the 2018-19 campaign is all but a given, but the versatility and determination he’s shown in less than 10 games — plus his status as an additional power-play threat — should put pressure on Babcock to consider giving Johnsson a playoff role over Kasperi Kapanen. Tough call.
The coach has already assured that Leo Komarov, who rested Monday, is healthy and will be in the post-season lineup due to his experience, toughness and penalty killing.
Such intense internal competition, wrought by Toronto’s ridiculous but temporary wing depth, is new to Johnsson, who’s never been in this tough to prove to himself.
The message from above, the player says, has been simple:
“This is a luxury for the coaches,” Johnsson says.
He flashes another toothy smile before another day of looking to see if his name pops up on the whiteboard.
“Of course I want to play every game, so we’ll see.”