Three exhibition games left before the regular season, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz removed one option from the pool of second-line center candidates, announcing to reporters Wednesday that Marcus Johansson will play wing this season.
“Marcus is going to start the year on the wall, but tonight, just because we don’t have a lot of centermen, he’s going to play the middle tonight, but he’s going to play wing this year,” Trotz said.
Earlier in camp, Trotz had stressed his hope that Johansson could have a “breakout season.” He pointed at the Swede’s experience — 263 career NHL games before his 24th birthday – as evidence, and elevated the expectations accordingly.
But adjusting to center took time for Johansson, who hadn’t played there “for almost three years.” He expressed a remorse for underperforming over the past several seasons – “I haven’t gotten as much out of my game as I usually do,” he said – and had looked forward to the challenge of playing center again.
Instead, at practice Tuesday, Johansson skated on the fourth line beside Chris Brown and Michael Latta, still firmly in Washington’s roster plans albeit far lower in the lineup. Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Laich remain battling for the vacant second-line spot, alongside wingers who haven’t yet been decided.
“I think with Marcus’s speed, he’s less in the battle,” Trotz said. “With his speed, it will open up things for him. Middle of the ice — he hadn’t played that position — so maybe he’s consciously thinking, ‘I gotta play center, I gotta play low, I gotta get low’ — but I really think with Kuzy and Burakovsky, the way they play center, it will be best for Marcus to go back on the wing.
“But I think it was a good experience for him to be at center, because you never know when you have an injury, you never know where you have to put a player. Like tonight, I don’t have enough centermen for back-to-back, so I’m going to put him in the middle. So he’s learning every position, it’s like Eric Fehr — Eric Fehr got to play left, right, center, so he understands the whole game from every aspect. It’s probably helped his game a lot, and it won’t hurt Marcus’s game.”
Over the past two seasons, playing mostly wing beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (respectively sharing 56.3 and 54.3 percent of his ice time in 2013-14), Johansson has scored just five even-strength goals, a low number even for a pass-first forward who set a career high with 36 assists yet attempted fewer 5-on-5 shots (72) than any Capitals forward with at least 1,000 minutes last season.
Under former coach Adam Oates, Johansson’s shot rate, measured by Corsi-for, also decreased by roughly six percentage points without Backstrom and Ovechkin. So even if Johansson nestles into a bottom-six role, those expectations from Trotz for better production will still remain, entering the final season of a two-year deal worth $2 million.
And so it looks increasingly likely that Burakovsky could stick with the Capitals, with him and Kuznetsov jockeying for roles. Trotz hasn’t shown reservation about keeping the 19-year-old Burakovsky around, and on Wednesday said he had no problem with Burakovsky and Kuznetsov as his second- and third-line centers.
“They’re not just average talent,” Trotz said. “They’re high-level talent. Both of them are very mature. Kuz is very mature, he’s 22, and if you talk to him, he realizes his game has to adjust over here still. He’s putting in the time, he’s watching the top centers in the league, he’s on the computer, he’s asking questions, and he’s getting a lot of help from guys like [Nicklas Backstrom] and even wingers that have been in the league that he’s playing with, [Jason Chimera] or [Joel Ward] or Brooks or [Troy] Brouwer.
“And Burakovsky has adjusted to center and is very mature in terms of understanding the game. He has a mature game, even though he’s really young in terms of years. He’s getting the same things from people helping him, Backie and those guys. I saw Backie working with him and both those guys on faceoffs, which is an area we need to get better and we will. So I don’t have a problem with either of them starting, they’re both high-level talents.
“The biggest thing is going to be patience, waiting for the young guys to do what they’re capable of doing. And I can be patient. I think we’ve got enough quality people around, good people on the back end as well, the coaching they’re getting on a daily basis from the coaches here, they’re going to adjust fine. There’s veteran savvy, and then there’s just good hockey sense, and a both those guys are high-level at that. There’s going to be the odd ‘oh, he got tricked into that.’ But really, in the long run, they’re just going to get better and better as they play more and more.”
Chelsea Janes contributed reporting from Washington, and by reporting I mean transcribing all the quotes, so thanks to her. I am sitting outside Gate A6 at Dulles, waiting for a flight to Buffalo after the first one got cancelled.