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The Evolution of Marcus Johansson

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Johansson's fifth NHL season is off to a strong start... but is it as good as it seems?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, Marcus Johansson seemed to be in a sort of purgatory. No longer in the running for his old spot alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top line, his name was briefly tossed around as an option for the second-line center job. With the rapid ascension of Andre Burakovsky and the return of Brooks Laich, however, that, too, fell by the wayside. As training camp progressed, it became harder to envision where Barry Trotz would fit him into the lineup... or if he'd be able to fit him in at all.

Just a month later, Johansson hasn't just made a spot for himself - he's also off to what may be the best start of his five-year career.

One of the biggest reasons? A shoot-first mentality, encouraged by his coaches, that has already yielded impressive results. So far this season, Johansson's five-on-five shots per 60 minutes are up to 7.68, a two-thirds increase over his career rate entering this season (4.63). And where there are shots, there are goals - six of them, so far, just two shy of his total from last season and equaling his output from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that five of those six goals have been scored at even-strength, a mark which leads the team and matches his total for the last two seasons combined.

It looks good, no doubt, but it's not unprecedented. Johansson has actually made a habit of getting out of the gate quickly over his young career - in fact, this is the third time in five seasons that he's had ten points through his first 14 games. Here's how it breaks down year by year:

G A PTS +/- PIM
2010-11 2 2 4 -2 2
2011-12 6 4 10 3 6
2012-13 3 2 5 -7 0
2013-14 0 10 10 -4 0
2014-15 6 4 10 1 0

So Johansson's good start is par for the course, right? Well... on the surface, maybe. Dig a little deeper, though, and this strong start stands out above the rest.

It's not just Johansson's individual shot totals that are up; he and his most frequent linemates, Burakovsky and Troy Brouwer, have done a good job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone. Johansson's five-a-side Corsi and Fenwick percentages are a tick above 50%, falling in line with his team's improved approach to possession. In short, when Johansson has been on the ice at fives, the Caps have had the puck more than the other team, that's a good thing.

A lot of factors go into the new-and-improved Marcus Johansson. A system that seems to suit him and his speed helps; so does a shift in focus from pass-first to shoot-first, which goes hand in hand with his move back to wing.

One of the biggest factors, however, may just be the guy who beat him out for that second-line center role, Andre Burakovsky. The two seem to have developed some nice chemistry, and as Burakovsky continues to evolve as an NHLer that should only improve. Granted, chemistry isn't exactly quantifiable (and the sample size is still rather small), but their success together can be demonstrated through their respective WOWY statistics. Johansson's goals-for percentage at even-strength is 70% with Burakovsky, compared to 25% without; his Corsi-for percentage drops from 54.9% with to 45.1% without.

All of this bodes well for Johansson, as the underlying numbers, like those of his team, are going in exactly the right direction - and unlike some of his team, the results are there so far, as well.

The question now is whether he'll be able to maintain this pace over the course of a full season. We've seen how he's had hot starts in the past, only to fall off a bit by the end, and there are a couple of areas where he could regress. For one thing, those six goals are the result of an unsustainably high shooting percentage, with 21% of his shots finding the back of the net; for another, he's being given very favorable deployments compared to previous years, no doubt a product of skating alongside a rookie pivot for most of the year (zone starts) and apart from opponents' top defensive focuses on the top line (competition):

MoJo Usage Chart

All that said, there's a lot to like about Johansson's game so far this season. His pace may slip a little as the season goes on, particularly if Trotz decides not to keep him and Burakovsky on the same line, but he's well on his way to meeting, if not exceeding, career highs in any number of categories - and more importantly, providing the Caps with the secondary scoring they need going forward.