TORONTO – On a hockey team ingrained with a built-in mandate to do everything as fast as possible — play, practice, recover — there is no time for mincing words in a meeting between a struggling rookie and a victory-obsessed head coach.
So, during the nine days Andreas Johnsson sat on the sidelines for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the man who drafts the lineup, Mike Babcock, made it bluntly clear what Johnsson must do to get back in it: play better.
“I haven’t been good enough. Simple as that,” Johnsson, sitting in his dressing room stall, said in an interview Monday relaying the message sent from high on the bench.
“I still have to show myself that I can play in this league. Every time I get to play, I have to prove it.”
From afar, the 2018-19 season looked like a crisp, clean canvas for the 23-year-old Swede to paint himself as a valued member of one of the East’s most dangerous collection of forwards.
Johnsson had instantly impressed during his late-season call-up to the bigs in the spring, scoring twice in just nine games of regular-season work and earning playoff minutes in the Boston series while fellow left wings Matt Martin and Leo Komarov (since dispersed from Toronto) looked on from the press box.
Factor in both the departure of another expensive left-winger (James van Riemsdyk) to Philadelphia in free agency, and Johnsson’s triumphant MVP turn for the AHL-championship-winning Marlies as an encore, and a top-nine role for opening night seemed like a decent bet.
Instead, the magic Johnsson waved during his Calder Cup run (24 points in 16 playoff games for a team GM’d by Kyle Dubas) has gone poof.
It’s chicken-and-egg in reverse. Which disappeared first, the production or the opportunity?
Seeing his ice time plummet more than three minutes from 11:42 in 2017-18 to 8:31 through the first seven games as a bottom-sixer on the bubble in 2018-19, Johnsson has managed just one assist and less than one shot per game.
And with one-year gamble Tyler Ennis taking over Johnsson’s original spot on the fourth line, Johnsson had been growing colder and less certain about how — or if — he belongs.
That Johnsson returned Monday not only to the lineup but the top nine, skating alongside Par Lindholm and Connor Brown, was a promotion of necessity, not merit.
Toronto did not immediately recall another forward in the wake of Auston Matthews’ shoulder injury, and Johnsson should get a lengthy look on one of the East’s most dangerous squads to assert his worth as a legitimate NHLer.
“What does he do with it?” Babcock said.
“He’s got to get his confidence back. He was a good player in the American Hockey League. The American Hockey League and the NHL are two totally different things.
“He’s a young guy who’s getting better, who was a dominant player at the end of the year last year in the American League. He’s got to come in and do the same thing here now.”
Specifically, using every inch of his five-foot-10, 181-pound body to win more puck battles, be hard on the wall, then make the smart play when the puck is on his stick. And, oh, by the way, Rook, you’re in a contract year.
Johnsson skated a game-low 7:19 in Monday’s loss to Calgary. The coach’s trust is as elusive as the player’s impact.
Behind Johnsson, Marlies left wings Trevor Moore and Carl Grundstrom have leapt to excellent starts for the farm team and could earn a peek if Johnsson can’t step on the gas.
“Sometimes the puck doesn’t bounce with you,” Johnsson tries to explain, in his second language. “Last year I felt I had a full good season and a lot of positives. It kinda went my way all season. [This is] more normal. Two seasons ago I had these bumps. You just keep working hard and the puck is going to bounce with you.
“I play pretty good sometimes and do good moves and make good plays, and the next time I drop the puck. It’s the consistency of playing heavy and playing hard.”
William Nylander’s contract stalemate kept the Maple Leafs forward lines in a state of flux throughout October, and Matthews’ injury insures they’ll remain in pencil throughout November if not beyond.
Kasperi Kapanen is the prime example of what extra ice time and some skilled linemates can do for a player’s confidence, status and, ultimately, bank balance.
Ennis’s tumble from Line 1 to Line 4 reminds that the ladder goes both ways.
An impending RFA on a team full of those, Johnsson wasn’t satisfied with his performance in training camp, and although he insists he’s keeping positive, the happy isn’t quite filling his whole body.
“It just became a shorter summer because we won the Calder Cup. I didn’t have as much time to rest and do the same workout as I normally wanted to, to go into a season. I had to shorten it up and pack it in somehow,” Johnsson says.
“It’s tough. I want to play. It’s hard to sit on the side, but I’ve been doing my best to get into the lineup and working hard. I’ve been watching the guys and trying to give them energy, too.”
The Leafs players, six of whom shared in that Calder Cup revelry with Johnsson, are loaning that encouragement right back.
“It’s not like a big speech or anything,” Johnsson says. “It’s every day they give me claps and they try to cheer me up and they’re being good teammates.”
Talk helps. Actions matter.
“I’ve never met one guy in hockey who says, ‘Coach, can I play less?’ They always want more opportunity. Someone always thinks they’re getting the short end of the stick,” Babcock said. “No one is getting the short end of the stick. We’ve only got 12 forwards. They all get their chance.