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Photo: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

Things looking up for Marlies’ Johnsson

by Adam Proteau | AHL On The Beat

When Andreas Johnsson arrived in Toronto for the first time, he was most impressed by how tall just about everything was. The buildings – of course, the CN Tower – bowled him over, as the architecture of his native Sweden, while beautiful in its own right, didn’t nearly scrape the sky the way things did in Canada’s biggest city.

“It’s just so big,” Johnsson said with a laugh in describing Toronto, a city he’s called home now for two years. “Every big house is taller, buildings are taller. The first couple times I was here I was so not used to it, I was just looking up all the time. I honestly got dizzy.”

And now, as a blossoming impact player with the Toronto Marlies, Johnsson’s career is the one with the noticeably upward trajectory. In his sophomore American Hockey League season, the left winger has emerged as Toronto’s most productive player on offence, and he earned a place in the AHL All-Star Classic because of his consistency and dependability with the league’s best team.

Now, this isn’t to say he struggled with the AHL game in his rookie season of 2016-17 – amassing 20 goals and 47 points in 75 games is nothing to disappointed about – but Johnsson’s offensive numbers this year rank him among the league’s most dangerous point-producers. His 23 goals (in 47 games played) puts him second overall among AHLers, and his 46 points puts him in a tie for third overall.

Playing on a line with fellow European Miro Altonen, Johnsson has asserted himself as an NHL prospect to keep your eye on. While it’s true the Maple Leafs have developed an impressive degree of depth at forward – Johnsson’s regular linemate this season, Kasperi Kapanen, now receives regular time on the Leafs’ fourth line and penalty-kill unit – Johnsson is giving Marlies GM Kyle Dubas, head coach Sheldon Keefe, and their counterparts with the Leafs a lot to mull over in considering when he’ll be afforded an opportunity of his own to skate with the NHL team at Air Canada Centre.

“I think his confidence level is through the roof right now,” Kapanen said of Johnsson. “He knows he’s one of the better players in the AHL, and he’s working hard at it. I think it’s starting to pay off.”

“I don’t know that referring to his growth is a proper terms, because when once he got comfortable, he just showed to be a very reliable player regardless of what situation, what line, what special team we put him on,” Keefe said of Johnsson. “He’s the kind of guy, all good teams have players like him in that every day: you know what you’re going to get from him. Because of that effort and attention to detail, it’s been a real privilege for me to coach him and for us to have him.”

Johnsson’s most recent battle with adversity came when he first came over to North America to begin his pro career here. Like a lot of AHLers, Johnsson needed to develop his body to do battle with fully-grown, physically-mature opponents on a nightly basis. The Gavle, Sweden, native was selected by the Leafs in the seventh round (202nd overall) of the 2013 NHL draft, but stayed home to play three seasons with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League and racked up 56 goals and 103 points in 151 regular-season games. He was just 21 years old when he departed for Toronto in the spring of 2016, and got a taste of what the North American professional game was all about when he appeared in two games with the Marlies in the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Photo: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

And it was in that second playoff game when adversity struck in the form of an elbow to his head by Albany Devils defenseman Dan Kelly. Johnsson suffered a head injury and did not play another game that year, but when the 2016-17 campaign began, he was ready to begin the process of learning about the long haul of life in the AHL.

“It was probably the biggest injury of my career,” Johnsson said of Kelly’s hit on him, “and it was during the summer, too, so I didn’t get the workout I wanted to (to prepare for last season). But it did make me more focused on getting back into life. It definitely changed me. It made me realize how being without hockey, it wouldn’t have given me the life I have now. So it made me want to be prepared and train hard, and appreciate the opportunities.”

His coach saw Johnsson’s injury temper the time frame the youngster had in terms of being at his absolute best at the AHL level, but Keefe added that he’s been impressed by Johnsson’s ability to push through a significant injury and not let it affect his game.

“I think it took him a little bit of time, perhaps, to get over that,” Keefe said of the injury. “The nature of the injury, it’s a high-impact hit that causes a head injury. It’s not so much the injury itself, but more so the fact that you got hit in that position. And maybe you kind of overthink things as you get back into the league – maybe you think you got hit because of the smaller ice, or you think, ‘Maybe I’m not ready for the league.’ All these kind of things can play on your mind. I don’t want to speak for Jonny – maybe that’s not the case for him and there were more natural adjustments. But from my perspective as an outsider, you look at it and say it’s going to take some time. But once he got comfortable – which, frankly, I don’t think took that long – he just proved to be a very valuable piece of our team last season and he’s continued to be this season, although I think he’s taken an even bigger step offensively. But he’s continued to be reliable in all situations.”

The injury wasn’t the first mountain Johnsson had to climb. When he was about to turn 19, a problem that had plagued him for most of his life was suddenly accurately diagnosed as asthma. For too long, he simply chalked up feelings of exhaustion and the almost constant need for sleep and naps as just part of his lot in life. But once he was properly appraised and received help for the condition, Johnsson became a better, more assured competitor.

“It was a huge difference,” Johnsson said of the diagnosis. “When I worked out I had 15% less air in my body, so when I began practicing (after being diagnosed) it was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not tired anymore when I was used to being tired.’ And after practice I didn’t have to go and have a nap. I still have to work hard like everyone else, but everything was so much easier after I was diagnosed with it.”

Johnsson’s relationship with Keefe also has developed over the years they’ve worked together. At first, as Johnsson acclimatized to the different ice dimensions and style of game, Keefe worked closely with him to ensure he understood the Marlies systems, structure and expectations. But this season, Keefe finds himself not needing to be as much of a teacher with the sophomore winger.

Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

“There are some guys that you tell them something once and they’re able to process and execute it, and there’s other guys you stay on top of and may have to remind every so often,” Keefe said. “Jonny was one of those guys at the top of the list in terms of guys you can hold a meeting for the team, deliver what you want and he can go out and execute it all the time. Some of those guys are guys you don’t wind up talking to for long periods of time, only because they’re doing things well. There’s just not a lot of mistakes there, and that’s a reflection on hockey sense and intelligence, and commitment.”

“We started to know each other better, and we know what we want to get out of each other,” Johnsson said of his relationship with Keefe. “Before, he was talking about the system, me being in the system, my health. And now it’s just reminders of what needs to be done, that kind of thing. I feel like I’ve got a lot of responsibility last year, and this year I’ve been more reliable in the offensive end as a player. So I had lots of responsibilities last year and this year, and now it’s about continuing to grow.”

Keefe keeps coming back to the word “adapting” when you talk about Johnsson with him. He and Johnsson both understand Johnsson’s 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame isn’t going to give him a physical advantage against most opponents, so instead, he’ll have to rely on his instincts and drive to help him win puck battles and get to the net. And thus far, those instincts and drive have served Johnsson to a degree both the player and his coach are pleased with, especially in the wake of the hit from Kelly.

“He adapts extremely well, and I don’t think I’ve seen him deal with any high-impact hits at all since that hit,” Keefe said. “He is a smaller guy, but he is extremely competitive, extremely smart, plays with really good angles and good body positioning, and often comes up with pucks against bigger, stronger guys. And that, I believe is a very good sign of a guy who can overcome any size or strength deficiencies he might have.”

As he focuses on the last leg of this regular-season, Johnsson’s goal is to continue to contribute to the Marlies’ cause, ensure Maple Leafs management keeps him in mind when next they need a call-up or two from the AHL, and enjoy his life in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. He spends most of his time with his girlfriend and talking to friends and family back in Sweden, but he loves the all-hockey, all-day environment of Toronto. Playing for a franchise that’s had its share of Swedish hockey legends, he is thrilled to have the chance to make an impact himself and push the Leafs – and his home away from home – to higher levels.

“I like this town a lot,” Johsson said. “When you go to other places and you see where other players live, it really makes you appreciate being able to play here. I feel like (Toronto fans,) they’re so much involved. There are so many more fans that want to be involved and have a lot of thoughts about the game. In Sweden, they may comment about a game but then it’s done. But here, I feel like they talk about it all the time. And to be in Toronto all the time, you feel there’s just hockey everywhere and you notice it so much more. I really like it.”