As Lucas Johansen stepped onto the ice for his first NHL preseason game Monday, it didn’t feel all that different from the summers he spent training with his brother, Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen. Skating with professional hockey players such as Brenden Dillon, Derek Grant and Jake Virtanen in Vancouver was a normal offseason for Lucas, so playing against NHLers in an exhibition for the first time didn’t spook him.
“For a first game, to have that kind of poise playing defense, you don’t see it very often,” associate coach Todd Reirden said. “So, it’s fun to watch, how he goes about the game. Certainly, I think it’s helped growing up in the family that he has and being around some of the players he’s practiced with. I think he has some special tools, in terms of his ability to slow down the play and see some things that other players don’t. He’s looking like an outstanding draft pick for us and a real great prospect moving forward.”
It’s unclear how much longer Johansen, the Capitals’ first-rounder this season, will be at training camp, with the first set of cuts expected Thursday afternoon or Friday morning. He’ll likely play next season with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets, but in Washington’s rookie tournament and this week of training camp, he’s made a positive impression.
He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 174 pounds, and his attempts at putting on more size include a 6,000-calorie diet. But what Johansen might lack in physicality, he makes up for with his smooth skating and his ability to add to the rush offensively with his puck-moving. Reirden said he’s been impressed with his performances on breakouts. Monday night, he played more than 19 minutes and was on the top power-play unit.
“There’s some big boys out there,” Johansen said. “I think they had a couple guys under 6 feet, but most of them are 6-3, 6-4, so it was a good test for me. But I’m not going to go rock guys over; I’m going to outsmart them. That’s kind of my game.”
This season in Kelowna will be an opportunity for Johansen to develop the habits the Capitals will be looking to see from him next summer, when he’ll have a chance to make the NHL roster or play in the American Hockey League. Johansen admitted he has a habit of playing with two hands on his stick and “being more passive.”
“The theme here is one hand and aggressive, so I have some changes to make,” he said.
“He has great hockey sense and feel for the game, and he’s not using all of his attributes to help him out,” said Reirden. “Especially not an overly physical, bruising guy, he’s got to be able to take away time and space from guys by using the one advantage you have as a defenseman now, which is your stick to do that. He cuts his range off quite a bit by having two hands on his stick as opposed to one, so it’s habit. It’s something that he’s been able to get away with in the past leagues he’s in, but that’s the type of detail that we talk to players about in trying to give them every possible chance to have success.”