Coming into last season, there was one true rookie on the Washington Capitals roster. John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth were in their rookie seasons, but they had played with the Capitals before. The only one who hadn’t (and in fact, had never played hockey in North America before) was center Marcus Johansson.
The season started off a bit rough for Johansson. The adjustment to the size of the ice and the speed of the game caused many to question whether he had made the jump too soon. The physicality of the game and different faceoff rules caused him to get knocked off the puck and lose draws, making him appear to be a boy in a man’s game.
Something clicked around December, and the young Swede started showing everyone why he was drafted in the first round of the 2009 Draft. Johansson finished the season with 13 goals and 27 points, and added two goals and six points appearing in all nine of the Capitals’ playoff games.
Johansson had experience all up and down the lineup last year, but what will this year bring? After the Caps traded for Jason Arnott, Johansson settled into a more regular spot on the third line for the last couple months of the season. He was able to utilize his speed with frequent linemates Jason Chimera and now Winnipeg Jet Eric Fehr to form an effective third line.
However, now that Arnott has moved on via free agency, there is again a hole behind Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps find themselves in a similar position as they did last season with a lack of a definite second line center, but one thing is different this year: Marcus Johansson.
He is a year older, with his first NHL off-season of training under his belt to undoubtedly make him bigger and stronger. He has adjusted to the rink and the speed and size of his opponents. He is a year wiser, with more knowledge of live NHL situations and his teammates.
Also in the running for the second line pivot is Brooks Laich, who recently signed a six year contract extension worth 4 million a year. While Laich is a natural center and was in the mix for the job last year, Bruce Boudreau and the Caps coaching staff always seem to send him back to the wing after short stints in the middle. They really like his speed coming down the side, and while he is always mentioned as an option, it seems to be an option they don’t like using.
With some new wingers to work with in Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, Johansson will get a legitimate shot at the second line slot, and I’d expect him to take it. He is too skilled and talented to be on the bottom six, and with a year of NHL experience under his belt, he’ll be ready to take on the job full time, and chip in at least 20 goals and 50 points.