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How Marcus Johansson Fits in with the New Jersey Devils

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Ray Shero flipped two 2018 draft picks to Washington for forward Marcus Johansson. This post goes into where and how he may fit in with the New Jersey Devils.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
Marcus Johansson can come down the wing for the Devils. Maybe even both of them.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a disappointing lack of action on July 1 to address the glaring needs of the New Jersey Devils, general manager Ray Shero made a bolder move on July 2. He turned a 2018 second rounder that was originally Florida’s from taking on Marc Savard’s contract and the 2018 third round pick that was compensation from Toronto for obtaining Devils legend Lou Lamoriello, into former Washington forward Marcus Johansson. Steve had the initial post up about the trade and you can see plenty of positivity in the comments about the team’s new 27-year old forward. They’re right to be happy because this was a big deal for the Devils.

In addition to just being a good value trade - extra picks for a player, Johansson is effectively the fifth top-six forward on the team. Last season, the Devils’ top six was essentially Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Mike Cammalleri - when healthy. No other forward averaged more than thirteen minutes of even strength ice time per game. You may say, John, that was only five players. That’s the issue. John Hynes and staff tried a number of combinations and players without any of it sticking for very long. With Cammalleri bought out on June 30, the top two forward lines for New Jersey became thinner. Now it’s back to five forwards.

What’s more exciting is that Johansson has been a very good player. If you read nothing else in this post, then please click on this link to Japers’ Rink’s overview of Johansson’s 2016-17 season. The post, written by Becca H, contains all of the common stats and analytics that one could ever hope for in evaluating a player. Again, you should really read the whole thing, but here are some highlights that I took away from the article:

  • With only 28 faceoffs taken, Johansson was definitely a left winger last season.
  • Johansson was a positive possession player and has positive relative numbers, meaning that when he came onto the ice in 5-on-5 hockey, the run of play was better for the Caps than it was when he was on the bench. He’s been a play driver for several seasons too.
  • Johansson had a very high goals for percentage and a positive expected goals for percentage. His work on the ice led to many good things for the Caps in 5-on-5 play.
  • Johansson enjoyed more zone starts on offense than defense, as expected for an offensive player on an offensive line. Similarly, Johansson did not receive the toughest competition but he was not sheltered or kept to play against weaker players. He received second-line competition as a part of Washington’s second line.
  • Johansson generally had a positive impact on most of his teammates in 5-on-5. The lone exception: Tom Wilson and that didn’t last long. If he missed anyone the most, it was Matt Niskanen - even then, Johansson’s shot for and shot against rates still yielded a positive ratio.
  • Johansson’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) was positive. While it was not among the highest on the Caps, his value was driven by positive scores for even strength offense, power play offense, and taking penalties - which is to say, Johansson really doesn’t do that (he had five minors last season. Five!).
  • Johansson was not a prolific shooter and he enjoyed a hot stick with a shooting percentage over 18%, but the goals he did score were at close range to the net.

While the Caps thought it was acceptable to let Johansson go to New Jersey in a trade, Johansson was an effective offensive contributor in Washington as a winger. The run of play tended to go in the right direction when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, he played well with most of his teammates, he was a contributor on one of the league’s top power plays, and he did it all while being remarkably well disciplined. Yes, Washington has a very talented set of forwards which may have helped Johansson be as successful as he has been. Yes, Johansson’s high shooting percentage makes me expect his goal production will drop at least a little. But the stats in Becca H’s post clearly indicate that Johansson was valuable in D.C. last season. I cannot stress enough that this all shows Johansson was a very effective left winger on Washington’s second line. It’s another why Devils fans should be excited that Shero acquired him at all, never mind it was for the extra picks the Devils owned.

Given that Johansson is a top-six forward, who do you play him with? Where do you place him?

Johansson can play all three forward positions, which provides head coach John Hynes plenty of options. As he’s a left-handed shot and he primarily played left wing for the Capitals last season, I would prefer that he starts on that side. Johansson would be a natural fit as the left winger behind Hall on the depth chart. Based on that, here’s how I can see it play out. As Johansson was not a tough-minutes forward on the Caps last season, I am not sure sticking him with New Jersey’s tough-minute center, Travis Zajac, would be wise. Should the Devils continue to keep Adam Henrique as a center (and at all, but that may deserve its own post), he would be someone to center that second line with Johansson. As CJ pointed out on Twitter, using Ryan Stimson’s passing stats for player roles, Johansson could very well be a playmaking forward who excels at passing the puck and building up play in 5-on-5 situations. It would be logical to put him with someone who is more of a shooter, someone like Kyle Palmieri would be something worth trying. Of course, that would raise another question: Who then plays right wing across Hall?

It’s a fun question because it gets to the remaining issue with the top six forwards: who’s the sixth one? It would have to be someone to play the position. But who? The Devils are short on right-handed shots and right wingers. Among that group from last season, only Palmieri, Stefan Noesen, Travis Zajac (yes, he’s a righty), Nick Lappin, and Blake Speers Allowing Beau Bennett to walk away still stings in that regard. From the prospects, Michael McLeod has played center in major junior, but he has a right handed shot. In theory, he could slide over to right wing should he make the team. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plan is to find a veteran, bring him in on a cheap deal or a professional tryout, and see what could work. It remains a need that Shero would need to fill among others, even if only to find a body that won’t destroyed in such a role.

But here’s a fun fact that CJ and others pointed out to me on Twitter. Johansson has played right wing in Washington before. It was more of an experiment - it was described as such in this Alex Prewitt article in the Washington Post - but he did it back in 2015 to play with Washington’s top forwards, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Per Hockey Analysis, Johansson did play over 200 minutes with both so it is possible that it was more than just a few shifts. If Johansson is comfortable in that role, then there’s that badly-needed second top-six right winger for the Devils. That open left wing spot could be given to a young player and there are a few more of them that could step in there. Pavel Zacha played left wing last season and could take it on. 2017 first overall draft pick Nico Hischier could make the team and since he’s a left handed shot, he could be given the opportunity. Provided Hynes doesn’t make any line with Johansson on it play a dump-and-chase style, Miles Wood could be a possibility. Of course, Hynes could decide to stick Johansson with Hall, leaving Palmieri for a possibly “easier” role. It all comes down to how well Johansson can play as an “off wing.” If he can in New Jersey, then that opens up more possibilities.

The other option: center. I don’t know if the Devils see Johansson as a center. Based on his faceoff totals, Johansson really has not played primarily as a pivot since the 2011-12 season. Further, the team has plenty of regular and possible centers in Zajac, Henrique, Zacha, McLeod, Hischier, Brian Boyle, and Blake Coleman. But the option is there should Hynes be forced to play some of these players at wing and/or injuries arise. As it stands on July 3, my preference is to keep Johansson as a left winger. The possibility of a Johansson-Henrique-Palmieri trio is real (and, yeah, I’m penciling in McLeod to skate like a mad man across Hall) and something to try out in the preseason. But if the Devils do believe (or get forced to believe) by one of the younger players for a top-six role right away, then Johansson can shift over to make it happen. No matter the option, Johansson can fit into the Devils’ top six right away.

I have to emphasize that this was (and still is to a point) a team need. It was a need that grew in part by Cammalleri’s buy out and in part by Cammalleri’s performance that led to that buy out. Shero understood that and addressed it with this trade. Getting Johansson for picks was a shrewd move to begin with. What the numbers state about him and what he has done makes it a great move. He’s an offensive player who was an effective left winger on one of the league’s best team’s last season. He has been a positive possession player and he now joins a team that badly needs those players. It’s fair to say that his style is that he is a playmaker, something the Devils definitely needed among their forwards. He served that second line left wing role admirably for the Caps and now he can do it in New Jersey for at least two more seasons. From my perspective and on paper, Marcus Johansson is a great fit for the Devils. He will definitely help the team take a step forward from last season’s dismal campaign.

What do you think about Marcus Johansson? Do you think he’s a great fit for the Devils? Did you read Becca H’s review of his 2016-17 season with the Caps at Japers’ Rink? Who do you think should be on New Jersey’s top two lines? Please leave your thoughts about Johansson and the Devils’ top six in the comments. Thank you for reading.