If you’re looking at the rookie scoring leaders for 2018/19 you’ll find Andreas Johnsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs in third place with 14 goals and 15 assists. Granted, at 24 years old the native of Gavle, Sweden is one of the more mature first-year players in the league, but he’s racking up more points-per minute than many established NHL stars.
Johnsson is making a strong case for being the best left-winger on the Toronto squad and many fans are questioning his ice time or lack thereof. For some reason head coach Mike Babcock has utilized the speedy offensive threat just 12:52 minutes on average per night.
He’s definitely making the most of his limited ice time though by scoring 0.59 points-per-game to rank fifth in the NHL in this category for rookies on the Leafs. This is quite an achievement considering he’s ranked 61st in the league for rookie ice time and 16th on his own team. Debates over Babcock’s handling of the rookie will rage on as long as he’s producing, so let’s focus on the player here rather than whether or not he should be playing first-line minutes.
Babcock has been taking a lot of heat from the media for usually playing Johnsson on the fourth line and recently told the Toronto press, “Johnsson’s making a case, though. The great thing about him is, he hasn’t sat there and said, ‘I’m not getting any minutes.’ He just decided to produce and see if the coach is smart enough to get it figured out.”
His production shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise considering Johnsson scored 109 goals and 100 assists for 209 points in 276 games in his homeland while playing with Frolunda’s junior and senior teams. Johnsson didn’t really impress many NHL scouts however as he wasn’t taken until the seventh round of the 2013 Draft when the Leafs took him with the 202nd overall pick.
Johnsson made his North American pro debut in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies during the 2015/16 playoffs by skating in a pair of games. He played full time for the club the next season and posted 20 goals and 27 assists in 75 outings as a rookie and added six goals in 11 playoff contests.
In 2017/18 Johnsson improved to a point-per-game by notching 26 goals and 54 points in 54 outings with the Marlies and was named to the AHL’s Second All-Star Team. He also made his NHL debut with two goals and an assist in nine games with the Leafs. The sniper then added a goal and assist in half a dozen playoff games before being sent back to the Marlies to lend a hand in their postseason run.
Johnsson exploded in the AHL playoffs with 10 goals and 24 points in 16 encounters and was named the MVP as he led the Marlies to the Calder Cup title. It was inevitable he’d be inserted into the Leafs lineup to start this season and took a huge gamble on himself by signing a one-year two-way deal last summer worth just $785,500. He’s now on pace to score 22 goals and 45 points this year in 76 games with a plus-29 rating even though he’s averaging less than 13 minutes per game. In addition, he had just two goals and one assist after 18 games this season.
The plus/minus number stands out here as Johnsson is a fine scorer and playmaker, but at just 5-feet-10-inches tall and 190 lbs he’s also an excellent defensive player. He’s a plus-17 in 58 career NHL games, was a plus-24 during his AHL career and is also a plus-13 in his pro playoff games. He’s definitely not a defensive liability due to his speed, determination and overall hockey sense.
While the Leafs are obviously delighted with Johnsson’s production and development, his play could cause a colossal headache for general manager Kyle Dubas when it comes time to re-sign him. He’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent in July and should be in line for a considerable raise. The problem is Toronto doesn’t have the salary cap space to offer him much. They’ve already shelled out about $18 million by signing William Nylander and Auston Matthews to new deals and still need to deal with Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen and perhaps even Jake Gardiner.
Marner could be looking for a contract close to Matthews,’ which is worth $11.634 million a year and Dubas should expect Gardiner for ask for about $6 million a year if he decides to re-sign the unrestricted free agent. The Kapanen contract negotiations should be quite interesting since the 22-year-old native of Finland is often compared to Johnsson. Kapanen has 16 goals and 32 points so far this year and is on pace to finish the campaign with just three points more than his fellow winger.
He’s basically producing at the same rate as Johnsson at 0.58 points per game, but is averaging three-and-a-half minutes more ice time per contest at 16:21. Johnsson’s agent will certainly bring these numbers up when dealing with Dubas and the GM will need to keep both players happy or risk them sitting out until they agree to terms, the same way Nylander did this season. Other stats Johnsson’s agent will bring up include his impressive league ranking for five-on-five points and goals per-60 minutes.
Dubas also has to be wary of potential offer-sheets from rival GM’s for Kapanen and Johnsson since the compensation they’d need to give up for either player would be well worth signing them.
Sooner or later Babcock will need to reward Johnsson with more ice time especially with the Leafs fighting tooth and nail with the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens for the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. However, they would need to fall apart to miss the postseason altogether.
More playing opportunity should enable Johnsson’s confidence to grow and the Leafs need to be firing on all cylinders once the playoffs begin. He’s earned more minutes per game as he’s ahead of his time in production, but is still behind the times while waiting for his reward.