Capitals General Manager George McPhee decided he had seen enough of the wait-and-see approach with the Caps roster and moved on to the win-now approach. The Washington Capitals have beefed up nearly every part of their lineup for the upcoming season, no mean feat to accomplish while keeping the team’s core intact. When The Hockey News anointed the Washington Capitals their 2012 Stanley Cup Champion, it immediately turned my attention to the pivotal position on any championship squad: center. Throughout the annals of Stanley Cup champions, the teams that win championships all have one thing in common: two excellent centers. The position McPhee did not address in the offseason was #2 center, so that remains the team’s biggest question mark heading into the season.
Right now the Capitals have two centers with established roles, Nicklas Backstrom at #1 and Jeff Halpern at #4, though he could just as easily start the season as #3. The Capitals have a few options in house to fill the #2 and #3 center slots, and there figures to some competition in training camp among swift rookie Cody Eakin, bruising Swedish veteran Mattias Sjogren, inconsistent and small Mathieu Perreault, and jack-of-all-trades Brooks Laich. The one player almost assured of playing one of those center slots is second-year pro Marcus Johansson.
Johansson, who will turn 21 just before opening night, is a stoutly built (5’11, 190) Swedish center who is coming off a solid but unspectacular rookie campaign. MoJo, as he is known among Caps fans, posted 13 goals and 27 points in 69 regular season NHL games plus 2 goals and 6 points in 9 playoff games. Johansson missed some time with an annoying hip flexor injury in October/November and skated two scoreless games with the AHL Hershey Bears on a conditioning stint. The major point to note about the 20-year old rookie is how he improved as the season went along. He was always solid in his own end and did the little things well, but he grew in confidence and consequently his scoring improved. For “Mackan,” who had played 64 games in Sweden 2008-09 and just 54 in 2009-10, to have his best stretch of hockey in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as games 72-80 is an excellent harbinger for his future as an NHL center. His ability to raise his game in the playoffs must have put McPhee’s mind at ease heading into free agency this summer, as the Caps did not sign a scoring center.
The numbers bear out Johansson’s improvement last season. Johansson totaled 15 goals and 33 points (15-18-33) in 78 NHL games including the playoffs, which projects to 16-19-35 in a full 82 game schedule. If you take out his slow start (much like Backstrom’s at the same point in his career), Johansson posted 14-18-32 in 68 games starting November 20, a pace of 17-22-39 over 82 games. If you start Johansson’s season at December 21, he posted 12-16-28 in 55 games, a pace of 18-24-42 over 82 games. Starting February 6, MoJo posted 9-12-21 in 38 games, a pace of 19-26-45 over 82 games. Then comes the coup de grâce, Johansson’s playoff performance. All playoff games are against the top teams in the league and they learn all your tricks as you play them night after night. Even so, Johansson’s 2-4-6 in 9 games projects to a pace of 18-36-54 over 82 games, a respectable number for a #2 center, and much closer to my projection for him a season ago of 10-35-45. Not that this is new for Johansson, he has a history of raising his game in the playoffs and showing up during international tournaments. Case in point, a season after winning the Swedish Elite League Champsionship as a rookie, Johansson posted 20 points in 42 games in the regular season before breaking out for 5 points in 7 playoff games, a huge increase in points per game.
Johansson’s major weaknesses that he needs to address going into this season are faceoffs and consistency. Consistency comes with experience, and even throughout last season Johansson was building his consistency. That item should not be a problem. The faceoffs are an area of concern as MoJo won less than 41% of his faceoffs last season. That would have ranked him 86th among the league’s top-87 faceoff men, but he didn’t take enough draws to qualify. The other areas Johansson needed significant improvement in were mostly addressed during the season. Johansson beefed up his defensive play, he shot the puck more, he stopped telegraphing his passes, and he started grasping the Caps’ systems better, which helped his positioning. With an NHL season under his belt, MoJo should post somewhere in the neighborhood of 55-60 points, assuming he plays a full season and takes his shifts on the top 2 lines. If Johansson can even get to 47 points, it would be the most a Caps #2 center has had since Michael Nylander in 2002-03.
It also helps to look around the NHL to put things into perspective. Last season’s NHL final four consisted of four teams boasting at least two excellent centers. Stanley Cup champion Boston had David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, both of whom are regularly 70-point producers. The Bruins took down the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, a team boasting two #1 overall draft picks for their top 2 centers, former 50-goal scorers Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. The Vancouver Canucks took down the San Jose Sharks with their 1-2 punch of last year’s leading scorer Henrik Sedin and 40-goal scoring Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler. The Sharks were no slouches themselves, boasting 2006 NHL MVP Joe Thornton and 22-year old rookie Logan Couture, the center who bears the most similarities to Johansson.
Couture was a rookie last season in technical terms, turning 22 just before the playoffs, but he got a head start the previous season when he played 25 NHL games, posting 5 goals and 9 points, improving as his stint continued. Couture also got his first taste of a deep playoff run, posting 4 goals in 15 games as the Sharks fell to the Blackhawks in the 2010 Western Conference Final. This season as the Sharks’ #2 center, Couture put up 7 goals and 14 points in 18 playoff games after a rookie season in which he posted 32 goals and 56 points in 79 games. Couture also raised his faceoff mark from 49.2% as a rookie to 51.6% in his sophomore campaign (playoffs included), but his faceoff win rate dropped drmatically from the regular season to the playoffs both times (53.4% to 45.2%) when the competition got stiffer.
If a player as young as Couture can do what he did after getting his feet wet in the NHL regular season and playoffs, there seems to be a significant amount of upside for a player like Johansson, who could easily post 56 points in his sophomore season centering the Caps’ impressive stable of scoring wingers. Even as a rookie, the Capitals would not have had the same playoff success without Johansson, who turned a 0-3 third period defecit in Game 4 of Round 1 into a 3-3 tie with two clutch goals. He also assisted on the game-winning goal in Game 2 and the insurance goal in the series-clinching Game 5. While Johansson only posted 2 assists in the second-round series against Tampa, both of them were on go-ahead goals that gave the Caps a 2-1 lead.
Besides Couture or Nicklas Backstrom, there is another player that George McPhee has to be hoping Johansson emulates. Going back to the 1997-98 season, McPhee’s first season with the Capitals, a young Russian center named Andrei Nikolishin took reins at #2 center in the playoffs and posted a team-record 13 assists and 14 points in 21 games as the Caps made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Not a prototypical #2 center on anyone’s championship team, especially with 46.4% faceoff winning percentage, Niko was still a big (6′, 225) 2-way player with good hands. While he only posted 16 points in 38 regular season games in 1997-98, his best season came as a 22-year old in 1995-96 with the Hartford Whalers, when he posted 51 points in 61 games. Nobody is saying Nikolishin carried the team on his back; #1 center Adam Oates gets most of the offensive credit with a team-leading 17 points, trade deadline pickup Esa Tikkanen was the defensive pest who kept Jason Allison and Alexei Yashin in check at #3 center, and team captain Dale Hunter was the faceoff ace (63.6%) at #4. Andrei Nikolishin was good enough to give the Caps the secondary scoring they needed at #2, providing the playmaking ability to set up his fast and talented wingers, Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik, who each posted a team-high 7 goals during the playoff run. It may not have been flashy, but it was good enough to get the Caps to the Stanley Cup Final.
If Marcus Johansson can win 46% of his faceoffs and get the puck to his wingers with regularity, the rest of the lines should take care of themselves. Having strong players at the center-ice position is a must for a deep playoff run, but if the Caps get excellent goaltending from Tomas Vokoun and their stable of puck-moving defensemen can stay healthy (a glaring weakness against Tampa), center doesn’t have to be the only position that carries the team. #1 center Nicklas Backstrom can carry the load offensively, #4 center Jeff Halpern was the Caps captain in the past and is a faceoff whiz. If the Caps can settle on a reasonably good #3 center who can shut down the opposition’s top lines, Johansson’s secondary scoring should be good enough to get the Caps deep into the playoffs this spring.