As the Boston Bruins prepare for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, Marcus Johansson is one of two former Capitals left standing in the playoffs.
After the trade deadline when he was dealt to the team that had injured him yet again, I wondered how MoJo would fit into the B’s lineup successfully in such a short amount of time. Lucky for us, former Caps bench boss Bruce Cassidy has deployed Johansson in a role we know well: as a primary distributor for crash and bang forwards, and as a lethal producer on the power play.
To start the playoffs, Cassidy placed Johansson in front of the net to screen the goalie’s eyes and keep him close to the corners. Look where he played against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the purpose of putting him as a net-front presence is clear.
Johansson’s purpose was to retrieve loose pucks and distract the Leafs from the other weapons on the Bruins power play, and they have many.
Torey Krug, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak all receive attention on their power-play units, but Johansson’s ability to make defenders forget about them is what makes him the fulcrum.
Johansson’s role as the danger-close utility player stands in opposite to his reputation among hockey pundits. Earlier this postseason, Mike Milbury decried Johansson as a net-front presence, calling him “marshmallow soft”:
Whereas Johansson’s actual on-ice presence has long been felt below the faceoff dots, as you can see in this HockeyViz heatmap of Johansson’s power-play shots from 2016-17:
As well as at even strength, as this Sean Tierney map of five-on-five shot locations with the Devils in 2018-19 shows:
Playing low is what Johansson does best, as the play below illustrates. He gets the puck back during the power play, bumps a Toronto player off it to give the B’s a chance back at possession, then goes back to the front of the net.
Eventually, this leads to a Boston goal. This all happens because MoJo gets the puck back.
But MoJo isn’t always a scrappy net-front guy, even if he does occasionally pot a garbage goal like this.
Starting in the second round against the Blue Jackets, Cassidy moved Johansson slightly off to the side, not quite in the Evgeny Kuznetsov spot, to be more of a retriever.
This meant MoJo was able to get more pucks as they came to the strong side of the ice. More recovery means more time with the puck which means more goals.
Any time you can recover the puck in the offensive zone, you not only fatigue opposing players physically, but mentally. Johansson’s ability to keep plays alive allowed the Bruins power play to click, resulting in one of the deadliest postseason powerplays ever.
It also helps when he can score a few goals as well and not simply rely on dishing the puck.
If I’m a team in need of a puck retriever and distributor on the power play alone, Johansson’s playoffs have shown how, in the correct placement, he can accomplish both of those things and add value.
About a month ago on the Steve Dangle Podcast, hockey analyst Rachel Doerrie said Johansson was a good fit on the Bruins because of his ability to not only distribute the puck but to enter the zone clean with it.
When MoJo was on the Capitals, he had a 90-percent controlled zone entry rate on the power play. Cassidy is now using that to his advantage at five-on-five play.
According to Corey Sznajder’s 2018-19 data, among 174 NHL players with at least 50 tracked entries, Marcus Johansson ranked 23rd in how often he successfully carried the puck into the offensive zone (68.5 percent)
On the Bruins’ revamped third line, Johansson is tasked with getting the puck into opposing territory, and he’s done so masterfully at even strength.
Johansson’s ability to possess the puck heading into the zone means the Bruins spend less time trying to retrieve it on a traditional dump-and-chase scheme, and Coyle has been the main beneficiary, scoring a fair amount in transition.
Additionally, carrying the puck in and maintaining possession means MoJo can rip shots like this from the slot if there aren’t adequate defenders back.
If I need a winger or center that can successfully carry the puck into the zone to maintain possession, I’d look at adding Johansson in the off-season to fill that need.
And maybe, just maybe, the Caps will be the ones to bring him back.
Headline photo: Steve Babineau
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