NEW YORK—As Barry Trotz evaluated the players on his new team before the season, his critique for forward Marcus Johansson was for him to shoot more and to use his speed and skill to be more productive. He thought Johansson had plateaued and gotten too comfortable, and then he had a revelation.
Johansson is just 24, about three years younger than Trotz thought he was.
“I realized how young he was,” Trotz said this week. “He’s just entering the prime of his career.”
Johansson took Trotz’s notes and scored the most goals of his NHL career (20) and more than twice as many as he scored last season. When Trotz preached “a heavier game” entering the postseason, Johansson, whom teammate Troy Brouwer referred to as “the little guy,” added another layer to his game. He had a goal and two assists in the first-round series against the Islanders.
“He’s been doing what we need him to do, and even more so,” Brouwer said. “He’s looked at as more of a skill player, somebody who can create more and score goals, but he’s finishing his checks and doing a good job. He’s buying into the system that Barry wants him to play in and what we need to do to be successful.”
Defenseman Karl Alzner said Johansson, who’s in his fifth year in the NHL, has always seemed mature for his age, in part because of the company he kept. Johansson is close with fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom, and so he was “in a different crowd than the young guy crowd.” Three years Johansson’s senior, Backstrom also made for a good mentor.
Most players wouldn’t mind being told to be more aggressive, but Johansson always considered himself a pass-first player. Last season, he had 36 assists with eight goals, and he had 20 goals this year with 27 assists. Alzner said Johansson scores “like 85 percent” of the time in practice because of his good blade deception, so he understood why Trotz wanted him to shoot more.
“I don’t really mind it,” Johansson said. “Now, shooting more, I think it creates more chances for myself because sometimes there are chances and you usually pass it. I think it’s opened up more for my game. It’s fun to score goals and help the team win.”
The emphasis on finishing his checks and being more physical in the postseason has led to Johansson’s line creating more turnovers, which is making for more scoring chances, Alzner said. With a ramped up intensity in the playoffs, Johansson said added physicality came naturally for him, even if his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame is one of the smaller ones on the team.
Trotz said adding more “grit and spit” to Johansson’s game was part of his initial vision. His ice time dropped to about 11 minutes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Rangers, but that was because he had to go back to the dressing room after an equipment issue and got “tangled up,” so he needed stretching after that.
“Sometimes he played a laid-back type of game,” Trotz said. “I wanted him to play with a little more fire in his game and to shoot more, and he has and he’s seen the dividends of it. Sometimes players plateau and get comfortable at a certain level, but we talked about keep pushing him to the next level and he has. He’s been much more productive. He’s been one of our top players.”
Teammates call Johansson, “Jo-Jo,” but to fans, he’s “Mo-Jo.” Alzner said the team has nothing against the fans’ “Mo-Jo” name, but “Jo-Jo” is just what happened to stick within the team. “We honestly just call people whatever comes to mind, like Jo-Jo or Bo-Bo,” Alzner explained.
The playful nickname is a subtle reminder of Johansson’s youth, which Trotz is always happy to realize when taking stock of the young talent on the team.
“I still see more in Marcus,” Trotz said. “Marcus has found out that by just taking it to the next level, there’s production and satisfaction and all of the things you get in the game. He’s realizing that.”