Devils’ Johnsson Shines in Opening Night Victory

The New Jersey Devils’ 2021-22 season got off to a thrilling start last night. It looked like things were close to unraveling after the Chicago Blackhawks scored two late third-period goals to tie the game at 3. But Jack Hughes saved the day with two goals, including the overtime winner that left Blackhawks netminder Kevin Lankinen completely helpless. 

Hughes may have gotten all the accolades, but it was Andreas Johnsson who shined for the Devils. Johnsson finished with a goal, but as per head coach Lindy Ruff, it may have been his best game in a Devils uniform. And the numbers backed that up. 

Johnsson had a difficult 2020-21, to say the least. Getting off to a good start this season will go a long way for him. And his effort yesterday evening showed he might be heading in the right direction. Let’s go over his performance and why his one goal really doesn’t paint a picture of how good he was. 

Finally, some quick hits on the Devils’ defensive depth standing out when they needed it due to some injuries. 

Johnsson Puts 2020-21 Behind Him

Before getting into last night’s game, let’s go over a quick refresher of how much Johnsson struggled last season, because that context is important. The Devils acquired Johnsson from the Toronto Maple Leafs almost a year ago to date. The hope was he’d help add some scoring depth on what was a very young team in 2020-21. Unfortunately, that’s not how things worked out. 

Johnsson finished the 2020-21 campaign with 11 points in 50 games — an 18-point pace over 82 games. That was well below the 45 points per 82 games he averaged in his two full seasons with the Maple Leafs. It also didn’t help that he was one of multiple Devils who came down with COVID during their team-wide outbreak in February. During his end-of-season press conference, Johnsson revealed his asthma made COVID worse and that his conditioning was out of sorts for a month after recovering from COVID. 

But even with the lagging production and after-effects from COVID, Johnsson still had good on-ice results at five-on-five. He had a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 53.5 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.5 percent. He was also one of the team’s better defensive forwards, so he was still doing good things. The rewards for his efforts just weren’t there for any part of 2020-21. 

Andreas Johnsson New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Andreas Johnsson (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fast forward to yesterday’s opener, and Johnsson looked much closer to the player that he was with the Maple Leafs. The Devils out-attempted the Blackhawks 20-6 with him on the ice at five-on-five, good for a CF% of 76.9 percent, and had an xG% of 80.7 percent. Both of those numbers led all Devils players at five-on-five. 

Johnsson was also generating shots and chances left and right against the Blackhawks. He finished with six shot attempts, three shots on goal, five scoring chances, and four high-danger chances, with the latter two stats leading the team. He was arguably the Devils’ best forward, so when Ruff says he played his best game as a Devil, he’s certainly not wrong about that. But it does help that Johnsson played on a line with two players who can help bring the best out of him. 

Mercer & Tatar Ideal Linemates for Johnsson

Given practice lines in the week leading up to the opener, it was clear Johnsson would get a shot alongside Tomáš Tatar and Dawson Mercer. The Devils signed Tatar as a free agent this offseason, while Mercer made the team out of training camp as a 19-year-old rookie. Not only did Johnsson play well, but his linemates helped lead the way too. 

You wouldn’t have known Mercer was a 19-year-old rookie making his NHL debut. He picked up the primary assist on Johnsson’s goal, the first point of his career. Mercer finished with a CF% of 68 percent and an xG% of 74.8 percent, the latter of which was second on the team to Johnsson. 

Related: Top 10 All-Time European-Born NHL Forwards

As for Tatar, him showing well at five-on-five is the furthest thing from a surprise. He was one of the best five-on-five players in the league in his three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens. His CF% and xG% ranked second in the NHL among all forwards (min. 1000 minutes played) from 2018-21, and he was one of the most efficient five-on-five scorers in the league. He drives play at a very high level, and it showed last night. He finished with a CF% of 60.9 percent and xG% of 66.2 percent and picked up the secondary assist on Johnsson’s goal. 

What really makes this line intriguing is Mercer and Tatar both do something that Johnsson doesn’t do all that well: they excel in transition. Johnsson’s best games last season mostly came when he was on a line with Hughes and Jesper Bratt, two players who can also drive play in transition. So it’s probably no coincidence Johnsson looked as good as he did with Mercer and Tatar. 

Dawson Mercer, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils forward Dawson Mercer (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s also worth noting that having a legitimate third line that contributes could be a game-changer for the Devils. Hughes may have scored two goals, but his line had a rough game at five-on-five. That becomes less of an issue, however, when you have three lines that can make an impact. The Hischier line played well, and Johnsson’s line helped pick up Hughes’ unit. That depth made a difference, and it certainly can moving forward if Johnsson, Mercer and Tatar keep it up. 

As for Johnsson, he couldn’t have gotten off to a better start to 2021-22. The only “gripe” is that you probably would’ve liked to see him finish more of the high-danger chances he created. But the fact that he was generating them at a better clip than he did at any point last season is an encouraging sign. Earlier this offseason, I predicted he was due for a bounce-back in 2021-22. And if yesterday was any indication, the Devils may be getting the Johnsson they hoped they were getting when they traded for him. 

Quick Hits on Devils’ Defensive Depth

The Devils were without two of their top-four defensemen against the Blackhawks in Ty Smith and Damon Severson, both of who were out with injuries. Severson could be back on Tuesday, while Smith could be out a little longer. They’re two key cogs of the Devils’ defense moving forward. But last night showed the team may have the depth to make up for any injuries on the blue line this season. 

Related: Devils Should Bet on Johnsson Returning to Form

Jonas Siegenthaler moved up to the second pair in the absence of Smith and played well alongside P.K. Subban. Siegenthaler finished with a CF% of 58.6 percent and xG% of 73.4 percent, the latter of which led Devils defensemen for the game.

Colton White played in only his 11th NHL game, but he fared well, totaling an xG% of 51.9 percent. His defense partner, Christian Jaroš, made his Devils debut and had a strong performance, finishing with an xG% of 61.4 percent. The Devils acquired Jaroš from the San Jose Sharks to fill the exact role he played as a bottom-pair defender against the Blackhawks. If both he and White play as they did last night, the Devils should hold up well if they’re missing some of their regular blueliners. Add Johnsson’s performance, and the Devils have plenty to build on heading into Tuesday’s tilt against the Seattle Kraken. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick 

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