When you think about it, it is kind of funny when comparing the first years in New Jersey for Marcus Johansson and Kyle Palmieri. Both were traded for a 2nd and 3rd round pick, and both are top 6 forwards who have the potential to be strong impact players for the New Jersey Devils for years to come.
What was incredibly different, however, was their first year impact on the team. Palmieri made his worth known to the team right away, with 30 goals in his first year with the club, a feat not often obtained by players on this team since 2012. Since then, he has solidified himself as a top 6 right winger and legitimate power play threat. Almost anyone who is prognosticating on the Devils’ core moving forward has Palmieri as one of the cogs involved in it.
Marcus Johansson came to the Devils with as much fan faire as Palmieri, if not more so. He had a couple of quality seasons in Washington, with great underlying numbers to go along with them that made analytical people quite excited as well. To get someone with his potential and playing skills for picks below a first rounder seemed to be a steal, especially at his age.
And in reality, the trade still might come to be a steal for the team. The only issue with Marcus this year was his health, and boy was he gone for a long time. With only 29 games played in the regular season, and none after January 23rd, it was hard to really get on board with his play in New Jersey in his first year here as it was with Palmieri. Injuries will do that, and concussions are no joke, but after a while, and especially as the Devils rallied late in March and early April to secure that final playoff spot, imagining Johansson’s impact on this roster was not as easy to see as perhaps it should have been.
With him coming back for game 3, however, and having him play fairly significant minutes in games 3 and 4, it is now once again prevalent just how good he can be and what sort of impact he can have on this team. In terms of just the eye test, over the last two games, where he really stands out as filling a hole is with his playmaking ability. With Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall playing almost all of their minutes together on the top line, there becomes a strong need for a puck-moving, agile, accurate passer and playmaker on the second line. No one can doubt Hall’s ability to maintain possession of the puck and generate strong chances via passes and puck-moving, and Nico has definitely flashed strong abilities in those departments as well. After them however, you don’t really see anyone with exceptionally strong abilities in those areas. Many of the players are grinders and hard workers, and generate opportunities either with their speed or with their size in gritty areas. But in terms of the forwards, at least in my opinion from just watching, the team needed another strong playmaker on a different line from Hall and Hischier.
To me, Johansson fills that need beautifully, and did so over the last two games. Playing mostly with Pavel Zacha and Patrick Maroon over those two games, that line seemed to be able to move the puck around much more efficiently because he was out there creating space. In terms of numbers, this was especially true when playing with Zacha on Wednesday night, to the tune of a 63.16% Corsi when out there together at 5v5, which was just over 10 minutes together. That is no joke, especially when you realize that Tampa absolutely dominated the possession battle that evening, even with the Devils trailing by a goal for the entire second half of the game. Playing a strong possession game when your team as a whole is getting crushed in possession is quite a feat, and Marcus’ +16.36% relative Corsi in game 4 is proof of that.
The other area where Johansson really showcased his importance to this team was on the power play. Over the last two games, Tampa took a lot of penalties, leaving plenty of time for both of the Devils’ power play units to get quality time and opportunities. Playing on the second power play unit on the wing, he did a fairly good job moving the puck around and generating space when New Jersey had gained control in the offensive zone. While that job falls mostly to Hall and Will Butcher on the first power play unit, on the second unit Johansson took the lead. This was especially true after Sami Vatanen left the game, as he is a crucial point man on the second PP unit, and Johansson was able to fill the void of moving the puck. In fact, Johansson ended up playing more time on the power play in game 4 (4:30) than Nico Hischier did (3:19). That is a strong statement about his abilities on the 2nd power play unit.
In the long run, there is no doubt that Johansson can become another key piece of the core moving forward like Palmieri has become. He has that potential. This year, with his injuries, however, that was not able to come to fruition during the regular season. Now that he is back for the team in the playoffs, however, you can certainly see why Ray Shero and Co. traded for him, and why he has considerable value on this team. There is no doubt that for game 5 today, the Devils will need him to be on his game for them to bring the series back to New Jersey for a 6th game. Definitely keep a lookout for #90 on the ice today, and the impact he has against Tampa.