This summer, aside from a few AHL signings, the Buffalo Sabres only added one roster player via unrestricted free agency. On July 6, the team signed veteran forward, Marcus Johansson to a two-year, $9 million contract. In just four games with his new club, the newly minted assistant captain has made quite a splash, registering two goals, and two assists while centering Jeff Skinner and Vladimir Sobotka on the second line.
Leading up to training camp, there was some uncertainty as to whether Ralph Krueger would try to deploy him as a center. The last time he had served predominantly down the middle was during the 2011-12 season with the Washington Capitals. In the seven seasons since, he’s mostly been utilized on the wing.
It’s no secret that Casey Mittelstadt struggled as the second line pivot last season. Fans were a little disheartened when it appeared that Jason Botterill had neglected to adequately address the team’s center spine this summer. Johansson’s emergence in that role has been a breath of fresh air, as has his instant chemistry with Skinner, the team’s leading goal-scorer from 2018-19.
In his first season of a brand new, eight-year, $72 million deal, fans were initially concerned (for the most part) when Krueger elected to separate Skinner from Jack Eichel, with whom he had a great deal of success last year. Johansson’s adroit ability to enter the zone and execute crisp passes through traffic has been an outstanding compliment to Skinner’s goal-scoring acumen in the early-going. Through the first four games, he has already been credited with three goals, two of which came from Johansson with the primary assist.
Skinner goal (Johansson assist)— Ben Mathewson (@Ben_Mathewson) October 10, 2019
4-2 Buffalo pic.twitter.com/P2KYpjRxfx
During his nine-year NHL career, Johansson has become accustomed to skating alongside highly skilled linemates. From 2011-2017 with the Washington Capitals, he spent a great deal of ice time with players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and closer to the end of his tenure there, Evgeny Kuznetsov (all of whom he skated with for over 1,000 minutes). With the New Jersey Devils, his veteran presence was put to good use, spending significant minutes with young up-and-comers like Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha.
From an analytical standpoint, Krueger’s de facto second line has helped provide a boost in overall scoring opportunities that simply weren’t present in the middle-six under Phil Housley. To this point, the Skinner-Johansson-Sobotka trio has posted an overall Corsi of 50.67 and a relative GF/60 mark of 1.66. Their relative high-danger Corsi percentage currently stands at 9.21, again, thanks in large part to Johansson’s ability to find Skinner out front through traffic.
Not too shabby, especially when you consider that they’ve accomplished this in spite of carrying an offensively below-average player (to put it lightly) on the right side in Sobotka, who has measurably been one of the Sabres’ most ineffective forwards to this point. At five-on-five, Skinner and Johansson hold an xGF percentage of 61.0, while Sobotka’s mark currently stands at 48.23. From a relative Corsi standpoint, Sobotka has posted the lowest mark of the three in each of the Sabres’ first four games.
Advanced statistics aside, even based strictly on the eyeball test, it’s pretty apparent that Skinner and Johansson are creating a positive effect on Sobotka’s metrics, and not vice-versa. Some will argue that Sobotka’s defensive skillset has helped facilitate more opportunities for his offensively gifted counterparts, but Johansson’s zone-exit/entry capabilities (paired with a defensive corps that has made significant strides aiding the forwards in transition this season), have probably had the biggest impact in that regard.
It will be interesting to see if Kruger makes an adjustment on the right side of that line in the near future. At practice yesterday morning, it was reported that all of the teams forward lines had remained unchanged. Perhaps he’s content allowing Johansson and Skinner to carry the load on their own for now, as it seems to be working reasonably well so far.
On special teams, the 29-year-old has also played a key role on the Sabres’ second power-play unit. Though he has only registered one power-play goal so far, he was a mere second from being credited with another when he scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens with Phillip Danault just exiting the penalty box before the shot was taken. In a short period of time, he has contributed in a big way to making the secondary man-advantage unit effective, one of several team aspects which seem to have made a complete 180-degree turnaround from 2018-19.
Another interesting side note regarding his presence at center pertains to the notion that faceoff proficiency is an important pre-requisite in order to be an effective pivot in the NHL. As of today, he’s won exactly one-third of the 51 faceoffs he’s taken with the blue-and-gold. It sure doesn’t seem to be holding his line back in any measurable way, offensively.
Johansson’s impact in Buffalo extends beyond his on-ice performance. The quick impression he’s made on Krueger is evidenced by the first-year head coach’s decision to make him one of the team’s alternate captains, ahead of many returning players from last year’s squad. Again, there’s a lot of hockey left to be played in 2019-20, but the organization certainly seems to be getting their money’s worth.
Simply put, he has provided exactly what the Sabres needed in a second line center. He’s helped catalyze Skinner’s goal-scoring prowess while establishing seamless zone-transition play, (which has likely helped allow Krueger to utilize his line in a 57.69-percent defensive zone deployment ratio) and continues to help breathe life into a previously futile second power-play unit.
It’s early, but it appears as though the Sabres have established two viable scoring lines at the top of the lineup, thanks in large part to Johansson’s ability to create opportunities down the middle and facilitate the skillsets of those around him. We’ll see if that trend remains consistent as the year marches on, but the model appears sustainable for now.
xG Chart provided by Charting Hockey
TOI and Line Deployment Data provided by Natural Stat Trick