On July 6, the Buffalo Sabres announced the signing of forward Marcus Johansson. The move seemed moderate at the time; surely Johansson would be able to help fill out some of the team’s lack of depth, but the significance didn’t appear to have as much weight as some may have liked.
The move made Buffalo the Swede’s third team in three seasons. Since leaving the Washington Capitals, Johansson played a year and a half in New Jersey before spending the end of last year in Boston. It was a good run; the organizations Johansson found himself on each had their own measure of success. Johansson never really found his groove on those teams, though - he never reclaimed the prowess he’d shown in Washington.
The recent past case a dim light on the acquisition. Questions regarding Johansson’s waning abilities limited excitement at the time. As a forward who traditionally played a wing position, he joined a roster that already had a litany of wings - Jeff Skinner, Jimmy Vesey, Victor Olofsson and Conor Sheary, to name a few. Would he really be able to contribute at such a stacked position?
What was unforeseen at the time was that Johansson was the second-line center that the team was so desperate for. He has fit in very well with Jeff Skinner, and even given Vladimir Sobotka’s play an unexpected boost.
At face value, Johansson is doing well. He’s got nine points in Buffalo’s first 15 games, and has been a key factor in the Sabres’ early power play success. He and his linemates haven’t quite found the same prosperity at even strength, but the line is a marked improvement from the second unit last season.
Individually, Johansson is average, as shown on this chart below. Bear in mind that this is nearly exponential growth from the previous campaign. Casey Mittelstadt filled the role last season, and struggled famously. The youthful center was perhaps thrown to the wolves before he was ready, but he has been more comfortable in his diminished role this year.
More important than his accomplishments thus far is the fact that Johansson is outperforming those in a similar position at a similar pay. Tyler Bozak has no goals in 15 games for the St. Louis Blues. Martin Hanzal has one for the Dallas Stars. He has played more minutes and has been given more responsibility than the two. Hanzal is especially interesting because he is underperforming in advanced categories when compared to Johansson. The value that Johansson has added to the team is beyond that of his counterparts, which is especially meaningful, considering Buffalo’s limited cap space.
It was important for Johansson to find his game again, not just for himself, but for general manager Jason Botterill as well. Botterill has struggled to assemble a cohesive squad in his few short years in Buffalo, and the moves he made this offseason - hiring Ralph Kruger, obtaining Johansson, Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju, among others - have given fans a glimmer of hope in what has been a series of underwhelming campaigns.