As a Washington Capitals fan living in Sweden, I have enjoyed watching Marcus Johansson play in Färjestad in the SEL and as a captain for "Små Kronorna" in the WJC this past year. Mackan is a very talented hockey player and I don't doubt that he will play in the NHL in the near future but the thought never crossed my mind that he was ready to make the jump and play at that level right away. I must say that I've been a bit amazed with how he went from a promising prospect to the second line center savior and front runner in less than a month.
I'm going to try to give you some insight on how Marcus is regarded in Sweden. I will also look at how players that are drafted from positions 20-30 in the first round are doing in their first year in the NHL and how Swedish players have performed in their first year in the NHL historically. I've tried to be as fair as possible.
Okay, I lied. I'm going to start off by looking at parts of the totally unfair comparison between Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Bäckström. For example, though they both served as captain of their respective WJC teams, Nicklas was chosen to represent Sweden in the World Championship as the youngest Swedish player ever. Marcus on the other hand was not invited to the any of the camps leading up to the world championship and didn't make the squad. He hasn't yet played a game at the highest level for Tre Kronor.
In his third (and final) season in the SEL, Bäckström played on a bad team that missed the playoffs. By comparison Marcus played on a better team that got bounced in the first round. In his third SEL season Nicklas went from being the fourth line center in the beginning of the season to playing on the top two lines at the end of the year. And he was arguably the team’s most important player. When he played good the team won and vice versa. Marcus was a good player for Färjestad in his last year but by no means was he the most important player. He finished with twenty points tied at 96th in points 44 points after the point leader Mats Zuccarello Aasen MODO now Rangers (the SEL is a 12 team league). In Bäckströms last season in Brynäs he finished with 40 points at place 22 ten points behind the points leader.
In the official Swedish hockey database, Marcus is listed as a vänsterforward – left wing. He played 42 games (but he is only in the game report in 40 of them hence the two missing games in the following stats). In 40 regular season games Marcus played center in 25 of them, LW in 14 and in one game he is listed as a RW. He was on the fourth line in 23 games, on the third line in nine games, on the second line in four games and on the first line in four games as well. In the games I have watched he was usually on the second or third line and he always got power play time, mostly on the second unit. He wasn't used much as a penalty killer but when he was given a chance in the WJC he was good at it.
He played center in all seven games in Färjestad's playoff run against Skellefteå. He was moved around from one line to another from game to game – the first line in one game, on the third line in two games, and on the fourth line in four games. It's hard to see a pattern but one reason for the moves is probably the many injuries the team suffered. Compared to the regular season, his playoff ice time increased from 14:05 per game to 14:26. He was used on the pp and he was trusted to be on the ice in important situations but it is worth noting that he didn't get any ice time in the dying minutes of games.
The 1990-91 age group that Marcus is a part of is considered to be one of the strongest Swedish generations ever, hence the seven Swedes chosen in the first round of the 2009 Entry Draft. So it's not as easy to get recognized as it would have been in a weaker year. It doesn’t help that he is the prototypical Swedish player – a good two-way player who takes a big defensive responsibility and has a decent shot (if only he used it more.) What makes him stand out is his skating and that he is a little bit more in your face then the average Swedish player.
Marcus never got any headlines when he was younger. Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson got all the attention. Mackan has never been the "new" anyone like the "Bäckström is the new Forsberg" thing that started when he was basically a kid. When there is discussion about "the best young player" and when awards like rookie of the year are given out he isn't even part of the discussion. This year Marcus Krüger, Jacob Markström, Magnus Pääjarvi-Svensson and Mattias Tedenby were nominated and Markström won it.
Looking Back at Bäckis
The first time I saw Nicklas play he was about 16. I had heard that there was this young goofy looking kid playing for Brynäs and I wasn’t rooting for any of the teams playing so I decided to see if the kid was any good. He was easy to find on the ice because he was the only player in a cage and he was tiny. I remember thinking he was going to get crushed and his first shift kind of confirmed that suspicion he was put on his ass twice and after the second hit it looked like he wouldn't make it back to the bench. But he got back up and looked better in his next shift and delivered a nice pass. It was his third shift that sealed the deal for me. He got the puck deep in his own zone and brought it up ice, entered the offensive zone and just stopped and did that time freezing thing when he protects the puck so well that it looks like the opponent is not even trying to get it back. After what felt like forever he made a pass with just the right amount of sauce on it over a d-man’s stick and left a Brynäs player all alone with the goalie and somehow he managed to miss the goal completely. Not long after that Bäckis took a stupid retaliatory penalty and got benched for the rest of the game. But it was enough to get me hooked. Almost seven years later and watching Nicklas Bäckström play hockey is very high on my good-things-in-life list.
I can't do shift by shift of the first time I watched Marcus Johansson play because I honestly don't remember it at all. I only understood later that he had played in a game I've seen.
The jump from the SEL to NHL is big for all players it's not just the smaller ice surface but the schedule is much more compressed with more games and less practice. Johansson played maybe 60-65 games last year including exhibition games so his game load will increase drastically. There is always a risk with rushing a prospect that isn't ready to play and Caps have been guilty of doing that in the past but I'm not overly concerned that they will make that mistake this time. In the past they have been forced to do it because the team was too weak but that's not the case this time. Having Fleishmann at 2C during the regular season doesn’t exactly fill my heart with joy but I can live with it.
Swedes in the NHL
212 Swedish born players have played in the NHL and when you look at that list its hard press (read: impossible) to find a player that makes the Marcus-Johansson-can-play-second-line-center-for-the-Caps scenario likely, especially if the criteria is that they have made the NHL directly without passing through the AHL and doing so just one year after they got drafted and without any games in Tre Kronor. It's of course difficult to compare players from different eras and some generations of players from different country's are stronger than others. For example Marcus’ 2009 draft class had seven Swedish players in the first round. That's something to take under consideration when you compare him to Nicklas Bäckström who was in a weaker 2006 draft class if you look at it from a Swedish perspective with only three players in the first round. The last Swedish player that got picked (Patrick Berglund at 25) is interesting because he is unique in that sense that he went directly from Allsvenskan (the second tier division) to St Louis Blues in NHL. That is practically unheard of (I think that Oliver Ekman-Larsson have a chance to repeat that this upcoming season and go from Leksand a Allsvenskan team to Phoenix Coyotes) and I'm surprised that Berglund didn't get more recognition for it. He put up 47 points in his first year and with that jump that's truly impressive.
If you look at Swedish players that make it as rookies they are all older then Marcus because they didn't make the jump to NHL that fast.
Mikael Renberg (too old) put up impressive numbers almost a point per game pace. At first I contributed that to playing on the Legion of Doom line but his rookie year was in 93-94 so it was too early for that he did get to play with Lindros that year and that ought to have helped him with his numbers.
If you disregard his age (he was 23 years old) the real stand out is Daniel Alfredsson; he was picked in the 6th round at 133rd and put up 61 points at became the rookie of the year in 1995. And talking about late draft picks Henrik Zetterberg was 22 in his first year.
If you look at young players that played in almost all games their first season and contributed with points they are all early first rounders; Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Henrik Sedin.
Bengt-Åke Gustafsson (4th round 155 overall) was just one year older then Marcus and did come over one year after he was drafted or a little bit earlier if you count his Oilers games. But he also played a WC for Sweden. Erik Karlsson was drafted at 15 and played a couple of AHL games but he definitely contributed this year for Ottawa.
So after looking at 212 players only one player – Patrik Berglund – managed to do what we want Marcus Johansson to do. It doesn't mean that it can't happen again but it's not a likely outcome.
Late First Round Picks in the NHL
Looking at the last nine years draft at the players picked between 20 and 30 in the first round with an extra eye at Marcus number 24:
2008 – At 24 New Jersey picked Mattias Tedenby who played for HV71 in the SEL last year and is trying to make the devils this year but will probably not make it. Michael Del Zotto ( 20), Viktor Tikhonov (28), John Carlson (27) and Tyler Ennis(26) have contributed to their teams so far. Caps picked Anton Gustafsson at spot 21.
2007 – At 24 Mikael Backlund; it took him one year to get to NHL and he passed through AHL. Max Pacioretty (22) contributed some one year after he was drafted by Montreal. David Perron (26) just went in a grabbed a spot for himself right away.
2006 – At 24 Dennis Persson a likely bust for Buffalo. Claude Giroux (22) needed two years and a stopover in AHL to make it. Nick Foligno (28) and Varlamov (23) both spent time in the AHL before contributing at the NHL level. We’ve already established that Patrik Berglund (25) is totally awesome.
2005 – At 24 T.J. Oshie is a great player but it took him four years to make it in NHL. Andrew Cogliano (25) it took him two years to establish himself. At 27 Caps took Joe Finley… ok moving on to next year.
2004 – At 24 Chris Chucko is a bust. Andrej Meszaros spot 23 got established one year after the draft and played all games. You can catch some good names in the end of the first round. In 04 Caps picked Green at 29 and Schultz at 27. Schultz needed three years and it took Green two seasons before he was a full time NHL player. Travis Zajac at spot 20 needed three years before he played in the NHL in 06-07. Wojtek Wolski at spot 21 played seven games in 05-06 but didn't become a regular NHL player until 06-07.
2003 – At 24 Mike Richards played his first NHL game two seasons later and became a regular from the get go. If you go outside of the 20-30 picks you find Eric Fehr at 18 and he played his first NHL game in 05-06 but as you know it took him until 08-09 to become a regular NHL player. 2003 is considered to be one of the greatest draft years ever. All players in the 20-30 range have played in NHL, including the famous Shawn Belle with 11 NHL games. Brent Burns and Ryan Kesler played the season after they were drafted but in limited roles. Corey Perry didn't play in the NHL until the 05-06 season.
2002 – Fellow Swede Alexander Steen got picked at 24. He's a well established NHL player but it took him until 05-06 to get there. If we again wonder a bit from the ranges Boyd Gordon was picked at 17 and played his first NHL game just one season later. Anton Babchuk and Sean Bergenheim did the same but in limited roles.
2001 – Lukas Krajicek was picked at 24 and he played the very next season but again in a very limited role. No player in that year’s draft got established right away and most of them needed until at least 05-06 and some even longer or not at all. At 30 LA Kings picked Dave Steckel, and he played his first game in 05-06 but wasn't a regular until 07-08.
2000 – At 24 Toronto choose Brad Boyes he played one game in 03-04 and been a NHL regular since the year after the 04-05 lock out. It took Alexander Frolov two years to play in the NHL the same for Anton Volchenkov. Caps picked Brian Sutherby at 26 and he played his first seven games in 01-02. The season after that he played in 72 games. Justin Williams jumped right in and played in 63 games in 00-01.
1999 – At 24 Lucas Cereda is a bust. Boston picked Nick Boynton at 21 he was originally drafted by Washington in the first round 9th overall in the 97 draft. He played right away but only in five games and it took him a couple of years to get established. Martin Havlat played his first game NHL game in 00-01 and been a NHL regular ever since. Spot 29 was in the second round back then and caps picked Michal Sivek he ended up playing 38 NHL games for Pittsburgh. Ahem.
The Washington Capitals as a franchise have drafted 389 players. If you look at those 389 picks how many of them contributed significantly to the team just one year after they got picked and in their first year in the NHL and without passing through AHL?
My list have six names on it Nicklas Bäckström, Alexander Ovechkin, Ryan Walter, Bob Carpenter, Gaetan Duchesne and Scott Stevens.
What does your list look like?
Ultimately, though, we are here to discuss Marcus Johansson. If you expect the kid to be the second line center on a Cup aspiring team what does he have to achieve to be a success? If you're measuring by points, second-line center Brendan Morrison had 42 points last year. How many would be enough to consider Johansson a success? Do you have a number in mind?
Remember that number and take a look at this list. I assume that no one is expecting him to pull a Teemu Selänne.
When Marcus signed his contract he said that if he didn't make the team out of camp he would use his European out clause. But maybe playing in Hershey wouldn't be such a bad idea with many players (centers) leaving he would get a lot of ice time and it would be possible to call him up when players get injured. The SEL starts before the regular Caps camp is finished and I don't see him getting a spot on Färjestad's roster next year. Färjestad is ranked as the team that made the most improvements during the off season and are the favorites to win next season.
What would be a successful year for Marcus Johansson?
I would consider it a success if he plays a few games in the NHL this year. If he makes the team out of camp (on his own merits) and contributes significantly it would be a huge success and if he becomes a bona fide second line center he deserves a parade with a lot of weagle-shaped confetti showering down.