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Ralph Krueger's vision, young talent attracted Marcus Johansson to Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres' National Hockey League-worst eight-season playoff drought did not faze Marcus Johansson. Neither did their second-half collapse last season.

Johansson, a 28-year-old left wing, has competed in the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, most recently during the Boston Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and, as a first-time unrestricted free agent, was among the best players available after the first wave of signings.

Yet, Johansson picked the Sabres, signing a two-year, $9 million contract Saturday to join a team that finished sixth in the eight-team Atlantic Division last season. Among the reasons he cited for his decision: new coach Ralph Krueger. During a conference call Monday, Johansson told the media his preliminary conversations with Krueger, particularly those pertaining to style of play, convinced him Buffalo could be on the verge of a breakthrough.

"Talking to him, first of all he seems like a really, really good person and seems like a good coach, a players’ coach," Johansson said of Krueger during a conference call Monday. "Very welcoming right from the start. I think the ideas he has and the way he wants to play hockey, too, for the younger guys is exciting. It’s something I’m excited to be a part of, too."

There was some uncertainty whether General Manager Jason Botterill would be able to lure a free agent of significance to Buffalo this offseason. In addition to the playoff drought, the Sabres fired former coach Phil Housley in April following another season in which they earned a lottery draft pick.

Following their 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres earned an NHL-worst 40 points over the final 57 games, posting a negative-55 goal differential during that span. Botterill told the media last month that trades were a "more realistic" means of adding to his roster, though he was speaking of the high prices in free agency.

Aside from signing Jeff Skinner, the Sabres' first significant offseason moves were trades for defenseman Colin Miller from Vegas and left winger Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers. Botterill and Krueger then managed a free-agent coup, convincing Johansson to join a young roster that includes Skinner, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Sam Reinhart.

"I think talking to Ralph and Jason, I like what Buffalo’s got going," Johansson said when asked why he chose the Sabres. "Talking to Ralph, he’s got some really good ideas on how to play, and it’s a really young and exciting team. I’m looking forward to it, and once it came down to it, I was really happy I ended up going to Buffalo."

What wasn't discussed between the two sides also is noteworthy: where Johansson will play in the Sabres' lineup. He was a center when the Washington Capitals drafted him 24th overall in 2009 and has won 913 faceoffs during his nine-year NHL career.

The Sabres are likely in the market for a second-line center, a bridge option until Casey Mittelstadt or recent top draft pick Dylan Cozens are ready for a prominent role. Though Johansson was a full-time center during his first two seasons with the Capitals, he has mostly played left wing in the NHL.

Johansson twice was moved back to center because of injuries and won 46 percent of his 278 faceoffs in 2015-16, but he could never carve out a full-time role at the position. He's also made more of an impact on the wing, scoring 61 goals over his final three seasons with the Capitals from 2014-17.

Johansson has twice eclipsed the 20-goal mark, posting career highs in goals (24) and points (58) during his final season with the Capitals in 2016-17.

He told the media Monday that the Sabres did not broach with him the possibility of playing center and noted he has spent the bulk of his career on the wing. Yet, Johansson said he is willing to do whatever Krueger asks of him.

"We didn’t really discuss that too much," he said. "I think wherever I can help and play I’m here for it and whatever they need me to do. I’ve played both. I’ve played mostly left wing over the last however many years, but whatever they need me to do, I’m up for it. That’s why everyone comes to play, you want to help the team win. That’s my main focus. … I’m happy to do both."

There is ample time for Botterill and Krueger to sort out the lineup. If Johansson remains on the wing, the Sabres have a surplus on the left side, including Skinner, Vesey, Conor Sheary and Victor Olofsson, among others. They also have significant needs at center and potentially right wing with a surplus of right-shot defensemen that includes Rasmus Ristolainen.

Though the puzzle is incomplete, Johansson expressed excitement for what's ahead. He spoke of the playing style sold to him by Krueger, likening it to the systems used by the Capitals and Bruins. Krueger intends to have the Sabres play aggressive in all three zones and hopes that doing so defensively will lead to more possession time, and in turn, more offense.

"The skill that Buffalo has with Jack Eichel and Skinner, and even on defense with Rasmus Dahlin and all those guys, I think that’s going to help them, too," Johansson said of the system Krueger wants the Sabres to play.

The Sabres targeted Johansson after his performance during the most recent Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he scored four goals among 11 points in 22 games. He averaged 14 minutes, 1 second of ice time per game during the playoffs, and was moved to the Bruins' top power-play unit during the Cup Final.

Johansson, who turns 29-years old in October, scored 13 goals among 30 points in 58 regular-season games between New Jersey and Boston in 2018-19. He was diagnosed with two concussions during his first season with New Jersey in 2017-18, limiting him to only five goals in 29 regular-season games.

A native of Landskrona, Sweden, Johansson has 120 goals and 214 assists with a minus-5 rating in 588 career NHL regular-season games.

He also is the latest player with extensive playoff experience to join the Sabres. Johansson has scored 13 goals among 41 points in 94 career playoff games and has not missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2013-14. Though many of his new teammates lack such experience, Johansson said Buffalo's 10-game win streak in November has him encouraged that the young roster is capable of much more.

"All these young guys, the more they play, the more they learn. I think you get more and more experience," he said. "I think last year they showed in the beginning of the year how capable they are of playing good hockey. You just got to keep it at a good level throughout most of the season, through all these highs and lows. Try to keep everyone positive and keep everyone moving forward even though you have rough times and everything.

"With all these young players being so good, they learn from everything. With all the talent they have, it’s going to go well."

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