The biggest issue facing the Toronto Maple Leafs is one which each and every NHL franchise would be glad to face.
Boasting overwhelming depth up-front, the Leafs have, over time, collected a wealth of capable forwards and competent young prospects eager to make an impact at the NHL-level. Unfortunately, this mass of both quality and quantity has severely restricted opportunities for advancement within Toronto’s organization.
As a direct result, many young individuals deserving of NHL ice time have been forced out of the picture, as Leafs management has regularly opted to instead implement veteran skaters regardless of their on-ice capabilities. No particular case echoes this pressing issue more clearly than that of Kasperi Kapanen, who skated in much more than 100 American Hockey League games before ousting Matt Martin for a place on the team’s fourth line — or so it would appear.
Unfortunately, this perplexing problem which Toronto so clearly faces stands poised to rear its ugly head once again and, in the process, impact yet another terrific young talent. This time around, the prospect whose development will surely be stunted is Andreas Johnsson — a former Swedish Hockey League Rookie of the Year currently obliterating the AHL.
Staring down a crowded NHL roster and with no immediate lineup openings in sight, should the Leafs look to trade Johnsson while his value stands at a high?
A Stumped Swedish Star
Although he is by no means a household name, Johnsson is an exceptional prospect who owns a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, Toronto’s overwhelming depth at the forward position could risk stagnating the Gävle, Sweden native’s personal development.
Originally signed by the Leafs in June of 2015, Johnsson arrived in North America full-time prior to the beginning of the 2016-17 AHL season. Although he was a relative unknown at the time, Johnsson wasted little time before making a substantial impact with the Marlies, as he netted 20 goals and 47 points in 75 games played as a rookie.
Now, in his second season with the Marlies, Johnsson has continued to rapidly progress as well as produce. In fact, through his 46th game played in 2017-18, Johnsson had already tallied 23 goals and 46 points — a rate of production which placed him on pace to net a whopping 38 goals and 76 points. In addition to leading his team in scoring, Johnsson had also earned 43 penalty minutes, a total which clearly illustrated Johnsson’s competitive nature and his determination to succeed on a nightly basis.
That’s a guy (Johnsson) who could easily transfer into the NHL. He’s got the elite speed, elite hands, elite mind for the game. – Travis Dermott
However, Johnsson is much more than a gritty, skilled, and hard-working forward. Blessed with exceptional hands and excellent vision, Johnsson is a phenomenal playmaker who can thread the needle or blast the puck on net himself. Further, Johnsson is a terrific skater, as his eye-watering speed and ample acceleration allow him to keep opposing defenders off balance while also creating time and space for his teammates.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) February 3, 2018
Highly energetic and competitive, Johnsson’s sound all-around game has and will continue to afford him considerable success at the AHL-level. Undoubtedly one of the league’s premier offensive players, Johnsson has — at the age of 23 — clearly proven himself capable and deserving of a shot at the NHL-level.
Unfortunately, the Leafs appear incapable of providing Johnsson with this opportunity.
Should Johnsson Stay or Should He Go?
Rather simply, Johnsson is an exceptional talent who should, without question, be skating with an NHL team to begin the 2018-19 season — if not sooner. Now, whether or not that team will be Toronto remains to be seen, as given the direction and intention of the Leafs’ brass, Johnsson could prove to be the ideal trade candidate to supplement Toronto’s thin defence-core.
Option A: Secure the ‘Swede
Ideally, the Leafs will hold on to Johnsson, as his lethal skill set and young age combine to make him a prospect of incredible value. If Toronto does intend to retain Johnsson, they will need to provide him with a legitimate opportunity to succeed at the NHL-level.
Yet, such an opportunity will likely not materialize until the 2018-19 season, as the potential departure of a number of pending unrestricted free agents could pave the wave for Johnsson’s arrival. In order to garner the ice time which he so clearly deserves, Johnsson will also have to leapfrog Josh Leivo, who has spent the majority of the current campaign in NHL limbo.
Although Leivo could very well be traded prior to or after the impending Trade Deadline, his prolonged presence — alongside Matt Martin — will continue to impede Johnsson’s ascension to the NHL-level.
Ultimately, Johnsson is an elite offensive force who could very well develop into a top-six forward. Speedy, skilled, and insistent, Johnsson’s promotion to the Leafs would further strengthen an already devastating offensive attack, which has consistently captured games despite poor defensive play.
A potential steal for Toronto given the fact that he was a seventh-round choice in the 2013 NHL Draft, Johnsson’s continued presence for the Leafs would, quite clearly, be of immense value in the long run.
Option B: Devise a Deadline Deal
With a future role with the Leafs uncertain, should Toronto instead aim to trade Johnsson while his value remains high?
Although the Leafs would be insane not to afford him an opportunity at the NHL-level first, dealing Johnsson could land Toronto a massive return and one which would immediately address areas of weakness within their lineup.
Perhaps the most notable deficiency of all is the Leafs’ blue line, which has been much maligned for its clear lack of depth. In trading Johnsson, Toronto could likely secure either a proven defender or a promising young defence prospect ready to grace NHL ice. Further, as a pending restricted free agent, Johnsson’s looming contract status would afford an interested team with a great deal of flexibility when it comes to setting his annual salary as well as the contract’s term itself.
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) January 27, 2018
While it would undoubtedly be in Toronto’s best interest to withhold Johnsson, trading him could prove to be the more sensible option if a true opportunity to succeed at the NHL-level with the Leafs fails to materialize. Although Soshnikov has been traded to the St. Louis Blues, a logjam of capable NHL forwards still lay in wait for playing time with the Leafs — all of which seemingly ahead of Johnsson within the team’s depth chart.
Ultimately, Toronto boasts a hidden gem in Johnsson, as his all-around game and growing skill-set combine to make him a prospect of sky-high potential. However, given his age and proven play to date, Johnsson must be provided with an opportunity at the NHL-level in the near future, as prolonged play in the AHL or considerable time in the Leafs’ press box will surely diminish his development.
At the end of the day, Toronto has a serious decision to make, and one which will significantly influence its future.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.