TORONTO – It’s little wonder why Andreas Johnsson was completely blindsided by the phone call.
About the last thing you’d think the Toronto Maple Leafs would need right now is another option on the wing. The decision to summon Johnsson for Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Stars was a surprise on many levels, particularly to the 23-year-old Swede, who experienced “an energy rush going through the whole body” and had trouble sleeping after getting the news on Monday night.
He may experience a fresh round of shock when he grasps what’s really at play here: This is an audition rather than simply a reward for his strong play in the American Hockey League. The Leafs see him as a possible solution to one of their few nagging problems.
“He’s had a good year,” coach Mike Babcock said Tuesday. “We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to give him a chance. Even now, obviously we’re going to have to sit someone else to do it. So that makes it hard. But we have an opportunity here this week with three games [in four days] and so we’ll have a look at him, and therefore if we need him at playoff time we have an understanding of what he can do.”
It must be something to spend two years walking into the wind and then suddenly have it at your back. Johnsson has been buried down the depth chart while scoring 46 AHL goals these last couple seasons – caught on the wrong side of a numbers game at the organization’s deepest position.
On Wednesday night, the Leafs will scratch Josh Leivo, Dominic Moore and Matt Martin just to get him in the lineup. And the coach is already wondering aloud whether he might be a fit for the playoffs.
It’s happening because there’s a belief Johnsson might provide a shot in the arm to the team’s sagging second power-play unit, which has gone pear shaped since the calendar flipped over to 2018. The group headlined by Auston Matthews and William Nylander has managed just three goals since Jan. 1 – a stretch that saw Matthews and Nylander producing more at 5-on-5 than they were at 5-on-4 before Matthews was sidelined with a separated shoulder three weeks ago.
Johnsson will be thrown into his familiar net-front position on that power-play unit.
“I’ve been playing in that spot for like half a year,” he said.
The Marlies deploy an identical formation, right down to the detail of having the two flank positions occupied by players on their strong side. (That’s the way Babcock has largely run things with Matthews and Nylander). It should provide a degree of comfort to Johnsson, who has eight power-play goals this season after scoring 10 last year and likes patrolling the high-danger area around the crease.
“I feel like that was one of my strongest sides, to get open for people,” said Johnsson.
The 202nd-overall pick of 2013 describes himself as a player who would “rather shoot before I pass.” His speed will be an asset at even strength while playing alongside former Marlies linemate Kasperi Kapanen and veteran centre Tomas Plekanec, but it is with the man advantage where he can really make his mark.
Earlier this week, Babcock lamented the struggles of his second power-play unit. A couple hours before the team officially recalled Johnsson, he told reporters: “We have to get that fixed.” The coach is intrigued by what the feisty left-shot forward might bring to a formation with Nylander, Patrick Marleau, Leo Komarov and Jake Gardiner.
“He’s got quick hands, got a good brain, gets the puck in and out,” Babcock said of Johnsson. “He’s tenacious, gets it back, seems to support it well. We just think he’s a smart player – real good hockey sense, real good determination with good hands – so now it’s got to transfer to the National Hockey League.
“As we all know, you never know 100 per cent [if it will]. You go with your best hunches and you see what happens.”
So as much as this NHL debut is a cool moment for Johnsson – especially with it coming against close friends John Klingberg and Mattias Janmark of the Stars – it’s also an unexpected opportunity. He’s unlikely to remain in the lineup when Matthews returns to full health, but he might establish himself as the next forward up in the rotation when/if injuries arise in the post-season.
If Johnsson plays well, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be back with the Marlies any time soon. Remember that the Leafs burned the third of their four allowable AHL call-ups post-trade deadline to get him here now even though they were already carrying 14 healthy forwards.
There was no sentiment involved in the decision. This is a team with Stanley Cup aspirations playing a hunch that Johnsson can make them better.
“The plan is to dress him [against Dallas] and then recreate a plan,” said Babcock. “How’s that?”