In the Barclays Center visitors’ locker room last week, Washington Capitals forward Marcus Johansson chuckled about his recent drought. “Feels like I can’t buy a goal right now,” he said with a shrug. The dry spell spanned seven games, and then in the first period Sunday afternoon, he started to wind his stick back for a prime scoring chance. The stick snapped in half, causing Johansson to fan on the shot.
But this season, Johansson’s slumps or bouts of bad luck haven’t lasted very long. Later in the first period, he pulled his stick back once more, this time successfully launching the puck into the net for his 16th goal of the season. Quietly one of the Capitals’ most consistent players this season, Johansson is just four goals back of his career high with 29 games left in the season.
After playing for a contract the past two years as a restricted free agent, he signed a three-year, $13.75 million deal this past summer. Some players experience a drop in production once they get that kind of security, either less motivated or burdened with living up to the pay raise. But Johansson has thrived this season.
“Some guys feel the weight of a contract,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Some guys actually get freed by not having to worry about a contract or anything like that. I think Marcus is a guy who needs to be assured that he’s part of the Capitals’ plan and he’s part of our process. Once that happened, I think he just relaxed and then just played and feels that he’s a big part of the hockey team. And he is.”
Even as Johansson endured a stretch of 17 games with one goal and six assists through January, he was able to laugh and shrug it off before Washington’s game against the New York Islanders last week. The team was winning, so he wasn’t fretting. As some of his teammates started the season in scoring slumps, Johansson was on a tear with 12 goals and 10 assists in the first 30 games.
“I think if you just go out and try to play your best to help the team, everything falls in pretty naturally,” Johansson said. “I don’t think you need to go chase points or goals or anything like that. If you play the right way, things are going to come by themselves.”
That attitude is easier to maintain when the point production isn’t being scrutinized in contract discussions. Johansson has scored between 44 and 47 points for three straight seasons. Encouraged to shoot more under Trotz, Johansson has increased his goal production in the past two years, and this season, he has continued to establish himself as a dangerous net-front presence to go along with his speed and sneaky shot. With 34 points so far, if he keeps up this pace, he’ll finish with more than 50 points for the first time in his career.
Trotz cracked that Johansson “obviously has been lifting weights” for his stick to snap like that Sunday afternoon. Indeed, while the Capitals and Johansson’s agent negotiated his next contract, Johansson tweaked his offseason training regimen. He worked with a new trainer in addition to his old one and called it a “great” summer. That seemed odd considering his future with Washington was murky for most of it.
“You kind of almost try to see it the other way around, as motivational,” Johansson said. “I mean, it is what it is. You can’t go around and be worried about that. You have people who take care of that, and most of the time it gets figured out. You just have to be ready when it gets done. You can sit on your [rear] and wait for it, and then all of a sudden you don’t have time to get ready. You just try to put that aside and use that as motivation.”
Three minutes before Johansson and the Capitals were scheduled for an arbitration hearing, both sides reached an agreement with an average annual value of $4.58 million. Had both sides required an arbitration ruling, the result would have been a one-year deal that made Johansson an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. After welcoming the birth of his daughter last February, he was happy to get the security of a three-year deal.
His play has proven that it was deserved.
“A lot of things fell into place,” Trotz said. “I just think Marcus is growing as a pro and feels good about himself. I think confidence-wise, he’s a lot more sure of himself, of our group and how we play. It’s just the normal evolution of a good player.”