TORONTO — As the hours tick down towards the trade deadline, the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to become a better version of themselves.
And it didn’t even require Kyle Dubas to pick up his phone.
The decision to bump Andreas Johnsson back up to a spot alongside Auston Matthews was a long time coming, and it produced immediate results. The Swedish puck hound was a relentless force in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, firing a career-best 10 shots on goal and earning high praise from the face of the franchise.
“He makes such quick plays,” said Matthews. “He thinks extremely fast and it’s like he’s got those fast-twitch muscles. He responds extremely well, his hands and feet and everything. It just seems like he’s moving 100 miles an hour.
“But the game, it seems like it slows down for him.”
You weren’t exactly left with the impression that Matthews wanted this lineup change to be a temporary one.
He and Kasperi Kapanen have skated with Johnsson before, but it’s never lasted. There’s reason to believe it’ll stick a little more permanently now — what with Mike Babcock searching for his best lineup in advance of the stretch drive and having watched Patrick Marleau fail to get much going in that prime spot over the last couple weeks.
It’s starting to get real.
The Leafs have dropped three in a row for the first time all season, watching Boston zoom past them into second place in the Atlantic Division, and the pro scouts were in attendance along with Dubas and the management staff as Toronto played well but ceded the special teams battle to the Capitals.
Johnsson looks like he can be a catalyst for this team, just as he was last spring for the Calder Cup champion Marlies. He’s managed to score 16 goals in his first full NHL season despite averaging just 12:52 of ice time. He was also scratched five times in October, missed a game for a concussion last month and another for a Charley horse last week.
In short, his rate of production is screaming for an increased role. And he didn’t look remotely out of place while filling Nazem Kadri’s spot on the top power-play unit or skating regular shifts with Matthews and Kapanen.
“I feel when I skate hard I can create chances and this was one of my more energetic games,” said Johnsson. “I feel I have to come with that level every game.”
Toronto controlled 71 per cent of the shot attempts and 69 per cent of the scoring chances with him on the ice at even strength. It was that kind of night against Washington, which survived a frantic first period before Alex Ovechkin scored on the power play and Brett Connolly cashed in a gift shortly after a failed Leafs attempt with the man advantage.
The Ovechkin goal was completely against the run of play and saw his league-leading 43rd come on a one-timer from above the left circle.
“His play, his numbers, speak for [themself],” said John Tavares. “You look where he scored from tonight: I mean that’s not that close to the net. His ability to get pucks off with very little room and being as accurate as he is, there’s no bigger threat over the last 10, 20 years on the power play.”
“We should have done a better job responding after that,” added Matthews. “It kind of took a bit of life out of us, and it took us a bit to get it back. But once we got it back we were working hard and we had the puck most of the time.”
The real back-breaker came in the third period, when Tom Wilson outraced Johnsson and scored short-handed to make it 3-1. That came a little more than two minutes after the Swede had cashed in a Matthews rebound and given Scotiabank Arena some life.
Toronto’s top line hasn’t really been settled all season, what with William Nylander missing the first two months due to a contract dispute and Matthews injuring his shoulder in November.
There is an opportunity now to stabilize that group while leaving the Zach Hyman-Tavares-Mitch Marner trio the way it’s been pretty much since Day 1. Then you have Marleau, Kadri (once he returns from concussion) and either Kapanen or Nylander on the third line, with some combination of Connor Brown, Par Lindholm, Frederik Gauthier and Tyler Ennis on the fourth.
Dubas may also elect to add some forward depth with a trade.
Either way, there’s no reason to play any of the current left wingers ahead of Johnsson at this point, not if you’re looking to maximize the roster’s potential.
“Well, I’m not promising anything because I haven’t watched the tape or nothing, but I thought his game was real good,” said Babcock, when asked if Johnsson would stick with Matthews. “I think Johnny has been playing well and he’s a guy who is tenacious, he’s on the puck, he’s got good detail and he seems to have hands around the net and he finds ways to score.”
Just the kind of addition the Leafs can use.