Komarov’s return to Leafs could mean Johnsson is odd man out

Jack Eichel scored the winner as the Buffalo Sabres rallied for a 3-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Monday, ending Toronto's home winning streak at 13.

TORONTO – We have seen the future.

Boy is it fast.

But a fourth line flanked by speed demons Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen isn’t likely to continue being a thing in the present for the Toronto Maple Leafs, not with Leo Komarov getting close to a return from injury.

It is partly a numbers game, partly a stylistic decision for coach Mike Babcock. As impressed as he’s been with Johnsson’s brief NHL cameo so far – “we’re lucky to have him,” the coach gushed over the weekend – he acknowledges that it’s going to be difficult to find minutes for him once Komarov is healthy.

“Maybe I don’t,” Babcock said Monday night. “I can tell you Leo is going in for sure, we need a heavy body and a penalty killer. He’s a man. That’s just the way it is, but I think Johnny has been real good.”

In a limited role, he’s been even better than expected.

Opportunity is awfully tough to come by for young forwards in the Leafs organization, but Johnsson has maximized his. He played a little more than seven minutes in his NHL debut on March 14 and was scratched the following night, when Komarov went down with a suspected knee injury in Buffalo.

That allowed the 23-year-old Swede to re-enter the lineup and he responded with a seven-shot outing and his first NHL goal against Montreal.

By Monday’s game against the Sabres, his sixth in the NHL, it was little surprise to see Johnsson knocking opponents off-balance with his speed. He intercepted a pass in the defensive zone and blazed up the middle of the ice for a breakaway – mimicking a player holding down the turbo button on a video game.

Kapanen also produced some dominant shifts using his puck control and edge work, giving veteran centre Tomas Plekanec a dynamic element on his wings. Very few NHL teams could piece together that much talent on a fourth line.

“I thought they were really good,” Babcock said after the 3-2 loss to Buffalo. “I thought two games in a row they dominated and played well, played hard and were effective. That’s a good sign for us moving ahead.”

It is not until next season when Kapanen and Johnsson are likely to be thrust into prime-time positions. They’re bound to have even more utility on a team that could be down James van Riemsdyk and Komarov because of free agency and may be playing William Nylander at centre rather than right wing.

However, there should be comfort in knowing they are options if/when more injuries arrive during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In six games together, the Johnsson-Plekanec-Kapanen trio has produced favourable shot metrics (53.23%), scoring chances (58.82%) and high-danger scoring chances (60%) despite starting only five of 34 shifts in the offensive zone.

They are now on the clock with Komarov pushing for a return and having skated the past couple days. It’s unlikely to come Wednesday against Florida – he won’t have had a full practice with the team by then – but could arrive either Friday (at New York Islanders) or Saturday (home to the Winnipeg Jets).

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Should Johnsson be pulled from the lineup this week, he’s likely to take the news in stride.

He never expected this recall in the first place and has maintained a healthy perspective on the situation. Even when teammate Travis Dermott had Johnsson over for dinner last Friday – the idea was for the former Marlies to take a moment and celebrate their success – Dermott found his buddy in a realistic frame of mind.

“He’s not taking anything for granted,” said Dermott. “Every time I’ve asked him about it he’s just saying that he’s trying to learn, trying to take in as much as he can and just kind of go day by day and not expect anything.

“Not coming here expecting that he’s going to be in for every day, just kind of working hard at it, and if he gets in he’ll keep working hard in there.”

That approach has served him well.

It harkens back to those ads created by a previous Leafs administration – “every day is a tryout” – because Johnsson has really opened eyes while playing modest minutes in games with little tangible impact on the standings.

Babcock has been notably complimentary, praising everything from his hockey IQ to his quick reaction time to his knack for staying on the safe side of the puck. He’s even outright said that Johnsson’s name is pencilled into an NHL spot for 2018-19.

“I always knew he was quick when I watched him with the Marlies,” said Babcock. “I didn’t know if he had speed. He does.”

All he’s missing, really, is the couple hundred more games of pro hockey experience that Komarov already has. Kapanen even got a taste of the playoffs last spring – scoring an overtime winner in Game 2 against Washington – and he’s the only other forward candidate to be bumped out of a healthy Leafs lineup right now.

In pretty short order, Johnsson has rocketed up to 13th forward in the organization. And he’s already got a lot of backers inside the Leafs dressing room.

“He’s just a good dude,” said Dermott.

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