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Getting to Know Buffalo Sabres’ Marcus Johansson

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The good, the bad & the ugly about one of the Sabres’ newbies

2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Many of us are familiar with Marcus Johansson, having seen him over the past few seasons playing with the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, or most recently, the Boston Bruins. Now, as the 28-year-old left winger prepares for his first season with the Buffalo Sabres, I asked a few fellow SB Nation writers who know him a little bit better just what we should expect.

Johansson played with the Capitals between 2010 and 2017 after being drafted by the team 24th overall in 2009. He then spent parts of two seasons with the New Jersey Devils before joining the Boston Bruins for 10 games last season. Overall, Johansson has 588 NHL regular-season games under his belt and 94 playoff games, and has accrued a total of 375 points.

Thank you to Dan Ryan (Stanley Cup of Chowder) and John Fischer (All About the Jersey) for their participation.

Die By The Blade: How would you describe Marcus Johansson as a player?

Dan Ryan (Stanley Cup of Chowder): Smart, I think would be the best way to describe him. He’s not the fastest player, nor does he have a wicked shot. However, he has great vision and seems to know where to be and when. He knows where to find the soft spots in a defense, and seems to be able to pick out the right pass pretty consistently.

John Fischer (All About the Jersey): Johansson is a versatile complementary forward. He can play all three forward positions. He can handle himself in a power play situation; the Devils utilized him on a half-wall as a distributor in 1-3-1 power play. However, he is not so offensively talented to lead a forward line or be the leader on a power play. His best skills are related to distribution of the puck as he has never been a prolific shooter in his career. He has been quite good at generating zone entries or at least facilitating them based on the All Three Zones project; so he can help in the transition game. He is not a liability on defense, as his shifts do tend to have zone exits with possession. At the same time he was not a driver of play from a possession perspective, and he was not used in defensive situations like a penalty kill or defending a late lead. He is good enough to be a second liner and a solid hand, but expecting him to be one of the team’s best forwards would be expecting too much.

DBTB: What can Johansson contribute to a young team like the Sabres?

Ryan: It’s a cliche, but leadership, probably. Johansson isn’t exactly an old guy himself, but he’s been around a while and has played for some great teams. He has experienced what it takes to win, and can impart some of that wisdom on the Sabres. He’s also a pretty good asset on the power play, which should help Buffalo.

Fischer: Young teams in general struggle with depth. They usually have one forward line or one defensive pairing with the team’s best skaters but it gets dicey when the lines and pairings behind them have to take a shift. Johansson will help make the second line on Buffalo be more respectable. Again, he is good at passing the puck and making the moves needed to facilitate zone entries and exits with possession. He can help make the power play unit, be it the primary unit or the secondary unit, be more functional. Since he can play any forward position, he does not need to be tied to the left wing spot, which is where he tends to fit best. This is useful if/when injuries and poor performances happen and the coaching staff needs to make some changes. If Buffalo has a shooter or someone who prefers to do so, then sticking Johansson with them may be worth trying out in preseason or in the first few games this seasons.

DBTB: Was a 2-year, $9 million contract for Johansson a good deal, or not?

Ryan: I think so, yeah. He’s still fairly young and has been productive. I thought he was great for the Bruins. The only caveat would be injury concerns, as he’s a bit on the smaller side and has had a concussion on the past (bad Marchand). Still, for only 2 years, it’s a low-risk deal for Buffalo. At some point, whether it’s this year or next, he’ll be a great asset for Buffalo to move at the deadline. It’s a win-win for the Sabres.

Fischer: I think it is a bit much in terms of salary. Johansson has battled injuries in his time in New Jersey, which undercut what he could do as a Devil. He was never able to get into a groove and so after five full NHL seasons (2013 excepted) of 40+ points, he put up a mere 41 over two seasons of 77 games as a Devil. He was not a good 5-on-5 player on a not-at-all good 5-on-5 Devils team last season and in the season before that in terms of Corsi For percentage and expected goals for percentage. Given that those injuries include concussions, there is an absolute concern about his longevity. So there is little evidence to support that he is worth $4.5 million per year on average. A two-season contract is defendable but I would have expected a smaller amount given that Johansson has something to prove after those two seasons in New Jersey.

DBTB: What does Johansson need to work on in his game?

Ryan: I can’t really think of a glaring weakness that stood out during his time with the Bruins. Consistency, maybe? He was only here for a quarter of the season, so any giant droughts weren’t really possible. Still, he, like the rest of the Bruins, had stretches of MIA play during the playoffs. On a team like Buffalo, he’s going to be looked to for reliability.

Fischer: Johansson is going to turn 29 in less than a month, so I am not sure he will be able to make a lot of changes to his game. The injuries were definitely not of his doing so I will not state that is something to work on either. The biggest thing I can think of would be with initiative. Johansson will not become the second coming of Ovechkin but he could stand to shoot the puck more and take a few more risks with his passing. Johansson has proven that he can help make zone entries happen and set up shots. Sometimes the best play with puck on your stick is to fire away and Johansson could stand to work on doing that more often. Even if he does that, Buffalo’s coaches would be wise to stick a more prolific shooter on his line.

DBTB: Why do you think the team you cover (Bruins, Devils) got rid of or failed to re-sign Johansson?

Ryan: Money. The Bruins are in a pretty significant cap crunch right now, and Johansson simply didn’t fit. I think the team would have loved to bring him back, as he was a good fit. Still, he wanted (and deserved) a raise, and the Bruins have cheaper options in-house. I think most Bruins fans would have been thrilled to re-sign Johansson, but most also knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Fischer: The Devils were terrible last season and so they did what a lot of terrible teams tend to do by the trade deadline: turn pending UFAs that they may not return into assets. Johansson was a pending UFA and despite the chances, Johansson was often unable to play for the Devils and, as with any injury, struggled to come back from them to get into any kind of form. It made sense for the Devils to trade for Johansson in July 2017 as they needed a second line forward. No one could predict injuries like Brad Marchand jumping up to elbow him in the face. However, he was unable to match what he did with Washington in New Jersey and so the Devils decided to move on they way they did.

DBTB: Final question: Do you have any specific memories of Johansson from his time with your team, good or bad? For instance a specific goal he scored that was especially impressive, or a big hit, or something off-ice.

Ryan: I don’t remember the specific goal, but during the playoffs, there was a moment that stood out. For whatever reason, Mike Milbury was harping on Johansson during the broadcast. The Bruins had put Johansson in front of the net on the PP, which was a bit strange because he’s not the biggest guy. Milbury kept mocking Johansson for getting pushed around, being too soft, etc. The whole thing was pretty odd, and bordered on seeming like Milbury personally had beef with Johansson. Anyways, later in the game, Johansson continued to take abuse in front of the net on the PP, but he stood his ground and ended up scoring a goal from that same net-front area. It was great, and showed the kind of effort Johansson can bring.

Fischer: Unfortunately Johansson’s most infamous moment with the Devils is when Marchand leapt and threw an elbow at his head at end of the Devils’ defeat in Boston on January 23, 2018. I will choose to be more positive. One of Johansson’s most productive games as a Devil happened near the end of his time in New Jersey last season. He scored a brace against Carolina on February 10, his second two-goal game as a Devils since the Devils blew out Buffalo way back on October 2017. His second goal held up as the game winner and sent the home fans happy for a change at the time.