The experiment of converting Marcus Johansson back into a center appeared dead on Oct. 1, 2014. That was the day Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz moved him back to the wing, where he has played most of his NHL career.
The breakout season that followed — 20 goals and 27 assists — seemed to solidify that decision. But when centers Jay Beagle and Nicklas Backstrom were injured against Buffalo on Dec. 30 — more than a year after the original experiment ended — Johansson was pressed back into service at center.
With Beagle needing hand surgery and out of the lineup for at least six weeks, the Capitals had an urgent need, and the few center shifts Johansson played against Buffalo impressed Trotz enough to try him there again. This time, the experiment was successful, arguably making Washington better.
“That’s the blessing of having people hurt,” Trotz said. “You find out sometimes by necessity and not by being creative, and you end up stumbling on a good thing or something that works. Right now, that’s been working for us.”
Since Johansson became the team’s third-line center Jan. 2, he has eight points in seven games. (He missed two games after being suspended for an illegal hit.) Though Johansson plays on the first power-play unit, all but two of those points have been at even strength.
In those seven games, the third line of Johansson and wingers Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson has five goals, and the Capitals have just one regulation loss when their third or fourth line scores. With Johansson, the trio has a 56.25 Corsi percentage, which measures the percent of shot attempts that go in Washington’s favor when that line is on the ice, according to war-on-ice.com. With Beagle, that trio’s Corsi percentage was 45.77.
“He’s good with the puck,” Backstrom said of Johansson. “I feel like he gets more involved in the game when he gets the puck and can control the puck through the neutral zone. . . . He said after a couple of games that he was worried about the defensive zone positioning and where to be, but I feel like it’s been coming, and he’s been going a good job of that.”
Moving Johansson to third-line center also had a favorable ripple effect. With Johansson’s second-line left wing slot open, Trotz could move 20-year-old Andre Burakovsky up in the lineup, and that change has led to Burakovsky scoring eight points in his past nine games. Before the change, Burakovsky had nine points in his first 34 games.
Johansson’s first stint at center perhaps didn’t work because it was too big a change for the Swede. With a new coach, there was a new system, and Trotz also was asking Johansson to play more aggressively and shoot more. Trotz said Johansson may not have been ready for a new position on top of everything else at the time.
“You kind of know the systems more and more, and you don’t have to think as much,” Johansson said. “You just go out and play. I think that’s probably why it worked.”
Johansson complemented Chimera and Wilson because he can move the puck well, making for clean zone entries. He initially struggled on faceoffs, but that’s improved, too. He’s winning 46.2 percent of his draws, about the same as second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Johansson also has been more aggressive in being a net-front presence.
After his breakout season at wing, Johansson is on pace for an even better season, with 30 points (13 goals and 17 assists) in 43 games.
“This year, I think you’re seeing a more mature, more confident and stronger player in probably all aspects of his game,” Trotz said. “Once he was thrown into that role, I think it was just easier for him.”