Share this article

print logo

Marcus Johansson emerges as intriguing candidate to play center for Sabres

Marcus Johansson wiped the sweat from his brow and shook his head with an expression of bewilderment inside the Buffalo Sabres' dressing room Saturday night. The 28-year-old had not played in a game since June 12 -- many of his new teammates were done in April -- when he and the Boston Bruins lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to the St. Louis Blues.

Johansson felt "lost" for the first half of his preseason debut with the Sabres, a 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs inside KeyBank Center.

"It's crazy," Johansson said with a laugh. "You try to mimic it in camp and everything, but it’s not the same as playing games. I think it’s almost the same as you go from regular season to the playoffs. It's a big bump up."

The slow start was likely inevitable. Johansson, the Sabres' top free-agent acquisition in July, was held out of the first three preseason games, and in addition to acclimating to a new city, he's learning new coach Ralph Krueger's offensive and defensive systems.

There was also an intriguing plot twist to Johansson's debut: he played center, a role he hasn't filled full-time since 2011-12. Though Johansson did not record a point and won 8 of 20 faceoffs, he has emerged as a surprising and intriguing candidate to provide depth behind Jack Eichel.

"I don’t think playing center was the biggest challenge tonight," Johansson said. "It was mostly getting into game tempo and timing and all that. I felt for the first half of the game I was a little lost out there. Everything is kind of new. The systems, playing center and all that. And it’s been a while since I played. It took a little bit. Felt better as the game went on. Need a few more games before it’s time to go, but it was fun to be out there."

Johansson and his linemates, Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund, were outstanding in maintaining possession in the offensive zone. They were also difficult to play against in the defensive zone. Krueger is trying to assess his options at center during a training camp in which Casey Mittelstadt has struggled early and Evan Rodrigues has shown the ability to play right wing.

Johansson, though, hasn't played much center since 2015-16 with the Washington Capitals, when he was needed there because of injury. He played the position in Sweden prior to being drafted 24th overall in 2009 and took 1,379 faceoffs over his first two seasons in the National Hockey League.

Johansson didn't have much success at the position, either. He has won only 41.8 percent of his faceoffs during his nine-year NHL career and has produced more offense as a winger. Still, Krueger said following the win the Sabres plan to give Johansson another preseason game at the position.

"I thought Marcus did a really good job there," Krueger said. "It’s a test for us to see what level we’ll get out of him. And I thought, when you think it’s not only his first game but in a position he hasn’t played and with players he’s never played with, in a system he’s never played in, I thought he did a really good job."

Johansson scored a career-high 24 goals as a winger for the Capitals in 2016-17 and hasn't taken more than 74 faceoffs in any of the past three seasons. He showed some signs of rust in the circle against the Maple Leafs, losing a pair of draws during a second-period power play.

However, Johansson's experience has allowed him to quickly learn the defensive responsibilities required of a center and winger in Krueger's system. He and his linemates did not have any breakdowns in the offensive zone. They were also outstanding in puck possession. Although their outstanding shift in the second period did not result in a goal, Asplund drew a penalty and Olofsson scored on the ensuing power play.

"It’s not different from anywhere else," Johansson said of playing center in Krueger' system. "If anything, everyone has the same amount of responsibility. ... Everyone has to help each other out. I thought we did that tonight. It took a little bit to get into the rhythm of things. When you're in it -- the game speed and the timing -- when you get the puck you already know where you are and what’s around you. I didn't really feel like that tonight."

Johansson, along with Jimmy Vesey, was acquired to address the Sabres' need for supplementary scoring behind Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart. Johansson has posted two 20-goal seasons but injuries have limited him to only 87 regular-season games over the past two years. He can provide a net-front presence and is excellent at entering the offensive zone, a weakness of the Sabres' last season.

"Whatever Ralph needs me to do to help the team win, I’m up for it," Johansson said.

Difficult bounce: The Maple Leafs took a 1-0 lead at 13:10 when defenseman Jake Muzzin's shot from the left point richocheted off one of Kasperi Kapanen's skate. The puck trickled into the crease, where it was chipped into the back of the net by John Tavares.

Familiar spot: Sam Reinhart scored his first goal of the preseason by cleaning up a rebound in front of the net. Defenseman Colin Miller, who was acquired from Vegas in a trade this offseason, unleashed a slap shot and the puck was knocked down by goalie Michal Neuvirth.

Reinhart quickly shot the puck into the net to tie the score, 1-1, at 15:56 into the game.

Olofsson special: It's no secret Olofsson loves to shoot from the right-wing circle, particularly on the power play. That makes Olofsson an ideal fit for Eichel, who typically quarterbacks the Sabres' power play from the left side. Eichel sent a cross-ice pass to Olofsson in the second period Saturday night, and the 24-year-old winger scored with a one-timer for a 2-1 lead at 7:50.

Olofsson scored the go-ahead goal, his second of the game, at 17:24 into the third period on an assist from Reinhart. C.J. Smith added an empty-net goal.

Awkward goal: Hutton will want the Maple Leafs' second goal back. The 33-year-old goalie was unable to stop Pierre Engvall's shot from near the goal line, as the puck snuck between Hutton's right leg pad and the post to tie the score, 2-2, at 14:45 into the second period.

Warm welcome: Vesey, a winger acquired from the New York Rangers on July 1, received his welcome to Buffalo at 9:05 into the third period, when he scored on a breakaway to give the Sabres a 3-2 lead. Reinhart made an excellent pass to spring Vesey.

The Maple Leafs, though, tied the score 11 seconds later when Trevor Moore responded with a shorthanded goal.

Story topics:

There are no comments - be the first to comment