I suppose I should come out right from the get-go and say that I am a huge Marcus Johansson supporter. I have been from day one. I felt that he earned a spot on the Capitals’ roster during preseason training camp and the subsequent preseason games.
What I also realize is that Johansson securing a roster spot was the product of dire circumstances. The Capitals are so depleted down the middle that they left no real choice but start Johansson’s North American hockey career in the NHL. If the scenario played out to perfection, Johansson would be serving an apprenticeship in the AHL. He would be perfecting his craft so one day he could enter the Caps’ lineup with the full set of skills we all know he has. So Johansson has been forced into on the job training. With it come ups and downs. The Caps must take their lumps.
As some background, the initial plan was to have Johansson centering the Caps’ third line. Nicklas Backstrom and Tomas Fleischmann entered the season as the top two pivots. Then the month of December came around. Fleischmann was shipped to Colorado for the shutdown defenseman the Capitals do desperately needed, Scott Hannan. Hannan’s tenure in the District got off to a rocky start. But after 20 games, Hannan has come to form rather nicely. But Fleischmann’s trade made the hole at center turn into chasm. The highly energetic, but inconsistent Mathieu Perreault received the call-up phone call to replace Fleischmann and has been with the team ever since. Perreault is still lacking the consistency that is so desperately needed. Couple Perreault’s inconsistency with Backstrom’s current slump, and Johansson’s ever-improving play; what you have is a merry-go-round of centers as Boudreau has mixed and matched the three centers for much of the past six weeks in an effort to find some element of consistency and chemistry with linemates.
This being Johansson’s first experience with North American hockey, this probably isn’t the best scenario for Marcus. Marcus needs to be placed in the best situation in which he can be successful at the NHL level. At this point, in the genesis of his career, that means finding a home centering the third line – a place where he can build confidence, adjust to the speed of an NHL game, and not be relied upon to be a primary source of scoring. The way you reward Johansson for playing well is by giving him more time on the power play. Over the past two weeks, Bruce Boudreau has done just this. It shouldn’t be until Johansson is consistently contributing offensively and winning the majority of his faceoffs that he be promoted to top six duty.
Over roughly the past six games, Johansson is certainly making his case for more ice time. He has been the Caps’ best forward. This is a great thing for Johansson as it appears he is growing more and more comfortable with every passing game. He had his first two-goal performance against the Florida Panthers. He also scored a timely goal against the Vancouver Canucks. Unfortunately both resulted in losses. He has been one of Boudreau’s most relied upon penalty killers. His PK minutes continue to increase and he has been on the ice for just one power play goal against all season. His defensive play hasn’t been error free, but being a minus player in 12 of 34 games played is something Marcus can hold his head high on. If he continues his trend of growth in the offensive zone, he will undoubtedly be a plus player. His defensive instincts are as good as anybody’s on the Caps’ roster.
So this is all great for the Johansson. But on the flip side this is terrible for the Capitals as a whole. For a team that many prognosticators and pundits labeled as contenders, it’s a major problem if your 20 year old rookie is your best forward. Recently this has been the case. Alex Ovechkin has just 16 goals this season; Nicklas Backstrom hasn’t scored since December 1, and Alex Semin hasn’t scored since November. This is a major cause of the Caps rollercoaster season. The fact of the matter is, if your best players aren’t your best players night in and night out, your team will struggle. Caps fans can only hope the “young guns” slumps are an aberration
Another major cause is the absence of a veteran center for the second line. Marcus Johansson is a likely candidate for this spot in the years to come. There are those who suggest the Marcus should be sent down to the AHL so he can develop and grow. After all, a stint in the AHL is typically the road young prospects take before entering the NHL. But the problem facing the organization regarding the absence of a second line center is precisely the reason Johansson should not be sent to the AHL. If you send him down, with whom do you replace him with? Right now Johansson is a great asset to the Caps, and is playing the best he’s played all season. Sending him down to the AHL would only exacerbate the hardships caused by the lack of depth at center. If Fleischmann was still around, perhaps the argument could be made.
Johansson must be kept with the NHL squad because the circumstances facing the organization require it. Additionally, Johansson is creating chances for his linemates, capitalizing on his own opportunities, and holding his own defensively. The ultimate success of the season now falls in the hands of George McPhee. The way the Capitals are currently built will not lead to glory come June. The essential ingredient still missing is the absence of a second line center. Look for the Caps to be buyers at the deadline, big time. Also look for Marcus Johansson to improve with each passing game. I’m realistic; I realize he is a rookie. He will have his ups and downs. But a stint in the AHL should not be in Johansson’s future.
Follow me on Twitter: @JCScriven
About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.