By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
No matter what happens Wednesday night in his NHL debut, Andreas Johnsson knows it will not be "a piece of pie."
The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect already made that mistaken assumption - and not just with the misplaced metaphor - when he arrived from Sweden in the fall of 2016 for his first full American Hockey League season.
"At first when I got here, I scored three goals in the first weekend," Johnsson said Tuesday after he was promoted from the Toronto Marlies to the big team. "I thought maybe this is a piece of pie. It was really tough and I had a long drought last year.
"You've got to be good every game, work hard and create a lot of chances because you don't get that many opportunities every game here."
Johnson also literally absorbed a hard lesson in his brief AHL debut at the end of the 2015-16 regular season.
Two games into the AHL playoffs, he was finished for the year thanks to a concussion sustained in a brutal body check.
Since then, aside from the scoring drought in the fall of 2016, things went much better. Johnsson, a seventhround draft pick in 2013, scored 20 goals in 2016-17, his first full AHL season.
And he has 54 points in 54 AHL games this season for the Marlies, which finally resulted in a call from the Leafs.
Johnsson, 23, will make his big-league debut against the Dallas Stars at left wing on the Leafs' fourth line with centre Tomas Plekanec and right winger Kasperi Kapanen, an old Marlies teammate. Based on Tuesday's practice, Johnsson will also have a spot on the second power-play unit, which might be the real reason for his promotion. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock expressed concern about that group a couple of days ago.
Not that Babcock wanted to get into the details of what he has in mind for Johnsson. "The plan is to dress him [Wednesday] night and recreate a plan," the coach told a group of nosy reporters.
Johnsson was not the only Marlie called up to the Leafs on Tuesday, thanks to a case of the flu that is making the rounds of the defence. Nikita Zaitsev was already on the shelf with the malady and then Travis Dermott was stricken and unable to practice on Tuesday.
Calle Rosen was called up on an emergency basis (which does not count against the four AHL promotions the Leafs are allowed after the NHL's Feb. 26 trade deadline). If Dermott is still sick on Wednesday, it appears Rosen will be on the Leafs' third defence pair with Connor Carrick.
If Johnsson can continue the progress he showed with the Marlies, he will be a rare lateround draft pick who makes an impact with the team. In the words of Justin Bourne, a columnist with The Athletic who was the Marlies video coach last season, Johnsson is considered a smart, tenacious player who is always in the right position. He also knows how best to leverage his smallish frame, generously listed at 5 foot 10 and 190 pounds, to win puck battles. And he can both kill penalties and play on the power play.
"I did not expect the call yesterday," Johnsson said. "An energy rush goes through the whole body. I was really excited and can't really sleep at night."
Auston Matthews took part in his second full practice since he sustained a shoulder injury on Feb. 22 in a game against the New York Islanders. While Matthews has played well when he is healthy, his second NHL season has proved to be a frustrating one. He has missed a total of 16 games with various injuries and his latest stint on the sidelines is now at six games.
The earliest Matthews will return to the Leafs lineup is probably next Tuesday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is still not participating in full-contact practices and the Leafs have three games in the next four nights.
"It's obviously frustrating.
Stuff happens," Matthews said.
"You just kind of stick with it, do your best to get back healthy. As far as my legs and conditioning go, it's all pretty good."
Rosen, 24, appeared in four games with the Maple Leafs earlier this season, but was dropped to the Marlies in favour of fellow Swedish defenceman Andreas Borgman, who was also demoted when Dermott later won a job on the defence. Babcock said he noticed an improvement in Rosen over the 50 games he played with the Marlies this season.
"He's an elite skater; he's playing a way stronger game," Babcock said. "I don't know if he's stronger, but he's playing a way stronger game. And he's showing much more confidence - that probably has a lot to do with knowing where to go and where to stand."
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brendan Guhle chases Toronto Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson during a preseason game in 2017. Johnsson makes his NHL debut on Wednesday against Dallas, likely playing alongside Tomas Plekanec and Kasperi Kapanen.
JEFFREY T. BARNES/AP