Washington re-signed forward Marcus Johansson to a two-year, $4 million contract Saturday, checking off the final item on the team’s offseason to-do list. It’s a welcome development for Coach Adam Oates, who is eager to begin preparing for the season with every player at his disposal and minimal distractions.
Barring injury, Oates plans to have Johansson resume his role as top-line left wing alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom after the trio found considerable success in the second half of last season, combining for 31 goals and 48 assists in 21 games.
Johansson, who will turn 23 on Oct. 6, is a natural center but played left wing on multiple occasions before finding a home on the first line last season. Oates believes the young Swede is better suited to playing on the wing as the Capitals are currently constructed.
“I’d like to see where that goes because of his speed, and the way we play his speed is a huge attribute. You’re going to see it more from a winger than you are a centerman,” Oates said.
Johansson, who is in Sweden and wasn’t available for comment Saturday, has increased his points-per-game average in each of his three NHL seasons, but it’s difficult to know what to expect from him on a nightly basis. His ability to play on the top line and first power-play unit and his strong chemistry with some of the Capitals’ top stars is occassionally offset by his propensity for turnovers and inconsistency.
That discrepancy is part of the reason why the Capitals were able to sign Johansson to a contract with a manageable annual salary cap hit of $2 million. Johansson will earn $1.825 million in the upcoming season and $2.175 million in 2014-15, lower than what the forward was believed to be seeking. As a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, however, he had little leverage.
Oates said Johansson needs more experience to stand out as more than a complement to Ovechkin and Backstrom. “Honestly he needs a little time, he’s younger than those guys,” Oates said. “He needs more time in the league, more games, more feeling the position, more growing into his body and getting stronger.”
Johansson’s contract — with its short term and reasonable price acting as a bridge between an entry-level deal and a potential long-term agreement — has become common across the league and should offer a clear incentive for Johansson moving forward.
“He’s got a great opportunity to start with two great hockey players in a good situation where the coaches like him, the GM likes him,” Oates said. “He’s got an opportunity for the next couple years to prove he can be a dominant player in this league and then you get rewarded if you succeed.”
With Johansson in the fold, the Capitals have a little more than $665,000 remaining in space under the salary cap and 13 forwards in the mix to make the opening night roster, not counting prospect Tom Wilson.
If Wilson, a winger, makes the team out of training camp, the Capitals would need to shed salary to make room for his $1.29 million cap hit. Thinning the large group of bottom-six forwards — Wilson, Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera and Aaron Volpatti will compete for three roster spots — appears to be the most likely option.
Regardless of how the lineup shakes out, by signing Johansson the Capitals know they will be starting camp with all options available for consideration.
“I think we’re fortunate this year,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “They got it resolved before training camp so we can have a full roster, get lines sorted out and make sure we’re doing everything possible in training camp to get us ready for the season.”