Return of Johansen a nice holiday gift for Bears

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

by Jesse Liebman | AHL On The Beat

As the Hershey Bears approach the American Hockey League’s holiday break atop the league standings, their blue line perhaps received an early Christmas present on Tuesday in the form of defenseman Lucas Johansen. The seventh-year pro was loaned to Hershey by the parent Washington Capitals, allowing Johansen to rejoin the team he had captured the 2023 Calder Cup with in June.

Johansen said on the eve of his first game back with the Bears, last night’s 4-3 shootout win in Springfield, that he’s excited to continue his development and have the opportunity to once again see game action.

The 26-year-old defender entered pro hockey with plenty of promise as Washington’s first-round selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, but after a solid start through his first two seasons, injuries limited him to just 14 games between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns. Fortunately, as he approached his mid-20s, Johansen seemingly took a step forward over the past two seasons, highlighted by making his NHL debut with the Capitals and playing a major part of Hershey’s Calder Cup run, a period of several weeks where the impact of every shift felt magnified the deeper the Bears went.

“Just playing in those high pressure-situations was extremely valuable. And then getting to Coachella Valley, with the crowd there and really having to bear down in those games, even though we kind of struggled there at the start, I think that experience was amazing,” Johansen said. “And then collectively to just stick with it and win was something that we’ll remember forever, but also be able to carry forward within our individual careers.

“I would say probably in the last two rounds, I felt like I was contributing pretty good. I thought I was playing really good defensively and hard to play against, and breaking the puck out pretty well, and doing all those simple things well. As time went on, I felt I got better and I felt collectively we were running a good clip there… Rochester was a really tough building to play in too. Those were really fun games and to be winning them and to be helping the team out was a lot of fun.”

After previously appearing in three National Hockey League games over the prior two campaigns, Johansen had taken enough of a step forward in his development to make Washington’s season-opening roster and skate in six NHL contests from Oct. 18 to Nov. 18.

“That’s the goal every year, to be on that team. You can learn a lot even if you’re not playing, so it was definitely a good situation to be in,” Johansen said. “I found the games that I was in, I was confident with the role I had, and I thought I was effective too. Overall it was just an extremely positive experience and I’m looking forward to getting back there soon and continuing that progress.”

Part of that progress while in the NHL meant observing and soaking up as much information as he could, especially from the more experienced members of Washington’s defensive corps.

“A lot of the older guys are great. I would try and watch (John) Carlson and (Rasmus) Sandin, (Nick) Jensen – they’re all good players, obviously. You see how those guys commit to taking care of themselves, and making sure that they’re ready for every game. That’s a big job, especially when you get 20, 30, 40 games in. It’s tough to be as consistent as they are. So just watching them, how they carry themselves daily, and getting to know them was great.”

Now that he’s back to taking a regular shift for Hershey, where he’ll be counted on in a variety of situations by the coaching staff led by Todd Nelson, Johansen is prepared for the larger role and seeing an increase in ice time and demands.

“It’s a different style of game. Here I’ve found it’s a little more of getting pucks to space and heavy forechecking and that sort of thing. So it’ll be an adjustment, but nothing that I’m not used to,” Johansen said. “I want to be as effective a puck-mover and as good defensively as I can be, and help the team continue to win.”

In the previous campaign, the Bears were known for being an exceptional defensive club, and that has continued again this season, with Hershey entering the weekend atop the AHL with the lowest goals against per game (2.11) and shots against per game (25.11). Where things have largely changed is Hershey’s offensive acumen, with the Bears scoring an average of 3.32 goals per game, good for eighth in the 32-team circuit.

With the Bears losing a handful of forwards to call-ups this week, including prized Washington prospects Hendrix Lapierre and Ivan Miroshnichenko, that perhaps puts more pressure on Hershey’s defense and goaltending to close out games, but it’s a challenge that Johansen is prepared for.

“Talking with some of the guys that have been here the whole year, they’re pumped that we’re scoring more goals this year. But when it comes down to it, you’ve got to play really good defensively,” he said. “Looking at the defensive depth chart, and our goalies, and even our forwards too, we can definitely win games that way, playing defensively as well as we did last year.

“Hopefully we continue to put the puck in the net, but if we have to lock down the game a little more going forward here for the next little while, we certainly can do that.”

While Spencer Carbery had been his coach up in Washington, Johansen now returns to the more recently familiar guidance of Todd Nelson, who is excited at the prospect of adding a player who possesses Johansen’s two-way abilities.

“Lucas is a nice addition to our hockey team. He was a guy who played a big part in our Calder Cup title last season,” Nelson said. “He’s been around. He’s a veteran guy. He’s a solid defender who makes a good first pass, and that’s an area where we’ll really benefit. He’ll blend in nicely with our group.”

So what is Johansen’s focus as he returns to Hershey?

“Just making plays out there as much as I can, trying to contribute positively, moving the puck to our guys and getting the puck in their net while keeping it out of ours,” he said. “That’s kind of my mindset, making plays to simplify.”