Lucas Johansen saw the signs.
The Washington Capitals prospect watched the NHL draft last weekend and noticed how many defensemen who look like him were picked. They were smaller and shiftier, and they reinforced Johansen’s view that the NHL is transforming into a league in which great skaters thrive. It forced him to reconsider his preparation because, a summer after trying to bulk up by eating two chicken breasts and a potato every two hours, he wondered whether getting bigger is still the right move.
“A lot of guys will train to get as strong as they can and then lose a little quickness putting on so much weight,” Johansen said Tuesday after the team’s development camp opened at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. “I want to be strong and quick and lean and as heavy as I can get without losing that quickness.”
Johansen, the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2016, came to the organization undersized for a defenseman. This past season, his first in the American Hockey League, he worked with Hershey strength coach Mike Wagner to fill out his 6-foot-2 frame, gaining about six pounds during the season to get to 188. Now, though, Johansen carefully minds the balance between lean and too thick because this camp and the rest of the summer represent his best chance yet to prove to Washington’s front office that the 20-year-old might be ready for the NHL.
After the Capitals’ trade of veteran Brooks Orpik last week in a salary-shedding move, a spot on the blue line might be available. Johansen will fight for the job, and, though it remains likely he’ll spend a large portion of next season with Hershey, he is closer than ever to validating the expectations others have for him and those he has for himself.
Half of the picks from the first round of the 2016 draft have made their NHL debuts. Johansen’s brother, Ryan, a center who was the draft’s No. 4 pick in 2010 and is now in this third season with Nashville, went straight from junior hockey to the NHL, playing 67 games in 2011-12 with Columbus.
Steve Richmond, the Capitals’ director of player development, said he understands the pressure placed on first-round picks and stressed the team would not rush to promote the blue-liner if it didn’t believe he was ready.
“Everyone wants to think, because you’re a first-round pick, you’re going to step right in after a year of pro,” Richmond said. “It’s not that easy, especially because we have a pretty good team here. We don’t rush guys, as you can tell. We’ve never rushed a guy, especially a defenseman.”
The organization believes it takes 300 professional games, whether in the NHL, one of its affiliates or elsewhere, to be properly prepared for the NHL’s defensive demands, Richmond said. Johansen played 74 last season in Hershey. The Capitals see more shifts per game at a lower level as more valuable than fewer minutes in an NHL game.
Washington’s coaching staff wants Johansen to use that extra time to develop his offensive game and build on the skill set that made Johansen, in the eyes of former Hershey coach Troy Mann, “very cerebral, [a] great puck mover.”
The team also expects him to improve on the power play, Richmond said, and Johansen has begun making that progress. Last season, he studied video of Christian Djoos, the 6-foot, 169-pounder who wrested control of a spot on the Capitals’ blue line as a rookie. Johansen watched the Swede’s movements with the puck and noticed an unpredictability and deception that he liked. Johansen has tried to incorporate elusiveness into his game. He said if a defenseman skates well and stays shifty in the NHL, “you’re going to be protected.”
This offseason, Johansen will continue to work with his brother at their home gym back in British Columbia. He has a goal in mind — make the NHL roster — but it is not a singular one. If he needs to develop further in Hershey, he knows that will be good for his game.
And if the Capitals call, he will be ready.
“I’ve always had an expectation for myself,” Johansen said. “You try not to put too much pressure on yourself, or you drive yourself crazy. I try to go to camp and do what I’ve always done and just try to leave a good impression.”
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