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Andreas Johnsson: Ready to break out (even more)

The Leafs love everything about late-blooming Johnsson. All that remains is the way in which they fit him in.

First Andreas Johnsson was the sleeper. Then he was the steal. Then he was The Man. Then came the heaviest expectations of his professional career.

Johnsson’s stock has changed so much since the Toronto Maple Leafs grabbed him in the last round of the2013 draft, 202nd overall, that it feels like they chose a different player entirely. Back then, he was a blindfolded pinata-swing pick, a small and speedy left winger from Frolunda of the Swedish League before small and speedy were en vogue in the NHL. Undiagnosed asthma created the perception that he quit late in shifts, which hurt his draft stock. Once he started taking inhalers every morning and night – something he says he’ll do for life – his motor caught up to his raw puck skills, and so did his numbers.

Flash forward past some steady improvement in the SHL and AHL, and Johnsson really started to tantalize by 2017-18. He was a point-per-game player in the AHL, got a taste of the NHL including a playoff series, then went bananas with 24 points in 16 AHL playoff games, leading the Toronto Marlies to a Calder Cup title and winning post-season MVP honors last season. Suddenly, packs of rabid Leafs fans were recognizing Johnsson on the street and literally yelling praise at him. He entered 2018-19 expected to compete for a plum scoring-line job in the NHL.

Instead, he started slowly. Really slowly. Enough to land himself in the doghouse of Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Johnsson failed to play 10 minutes in any of his first seven games. By the 10-game mark, he’d recorded a single point, an assist, while averaging 9:34 of ice time.

Johnsson, however, doesn’t rattle easily. He grew up in pro dressing rooms. His father, Jonas, was a longtime center in the SHL, winning three championships and holding Frolunda’s captaincy for five seasons. As kids, Andreas and older brother Jonathan got to meet their idols, who happened to be their dad’s linemates, Tomi Kallio and Niklas Andersson.

And Andreas, through good times and bad, always has his seasoned father around as a sounding board. “He’s always saying, ‘It’s tough but to keep going, and if you don’t think it’s fun, then you should quit,’” Johnsson said. “Both he and my mom have supported me well. You can get another view on a game, get some tips from him after the game that are not from the coach here or teammates, from someone else who sees the game a little differently.”

Johnsson, 24, stayed patient and, thanks to a blend of hard work, roster shuffling and injuries, slowly climbed Toronto’s depth chart until he was parked on a scoring line with Auston Matthews at center and Kasperi Kapanen at right wing. Then the long-awaited breakout happened. Johnsson scored his first career hat trick on Nov. 24, kicking off a 55-game stretch in which he racked up 18 goals and 40 points, which extrapolates to 27 goals and 60 points across a full season. So is that a fair ask for 2019-20’s stat line, then? “I always want for every single season to improve from my season before,” Johnsson said. “I want to have a bigger role, and I want to be a bigger part of the team, and I want to score more points. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life.”

A large chunk of the analytics community saw the explosion coming and believes that Johnsson’s profile screams true first-line scorer if he gets the ice time. Among the 365 NHL forwards who logged at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Johnsson ranked 25th in individual points per 60 minutes, ahead of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Evgeni Malkin, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin.

Johnsson showed he belongs on a high-skill line yet averaged just 1:35 of power-play time per game – 11th on the Leafs. He saw more looks on the power play in the playoffs when Nazem Kadri got suspended, so if Johnsson gets another opportunity on the loaded first unit, his stats will skyrocket.

At least, that’s what one side of the advanced-stats debate claims, says Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. “I don’t know if I’ve seen such a polarizing player in those circles,” Dubas said. “On one hand, you have the data-driven mindset that, ‘He produces at this rate, so he should play more.’ The other side is, ‘The production is being inflated by an unsustainable shooting percentage, and you should sell high on him.’ That’s one of the more interesting things to follow.”

It’s no surprise Dubas has studied the numbers painstakingly. Johnsson is an RFA, after all, and represents one-third of Toronto’s crucial trifecta along with Kapanen and priority No. 1 Mitch Marner. The Leafs are crushed against the cap with $13.5 million available, and Marner alone will take most of it. Dubas must perform backbreaking salary gymnastics to fit the RFAs onto the payroll before they become vulnerable to offer sheets – or before negotiations get protracted like they did for William Nylander last year.

Luckily, as Dubas points out, Johnsson is eligible for arbitration, meaning he’s the one RFA for which the Leafs can count on a resolution by the end of July. That also makes him less likely to be the odd forward out if Dubas decides to trade one, which is the only way the Leafs can upgrade markedly on defense, as they’d have work to do to squeeze a top-end blueliner under their cap.

So has Johnsson shown enough to earn a long-term deal? Or are the Leafs better off going the bridge or arbitration route with him? Guessing a player’s future production is a game of chicken. “Every team faces that challenge, right?” Dubas said. “It’s not simple, and a lot of it is impacted by the amount of salary space you have at any given time. On a long-term deal, a player is obviously going to expect to be paid more, because they’re giving up more in terms of their unrestricted years.”

Whatever contract Johnsson signs, he’s not worried. His camp has negotiated an RFA deal before. And he seems more likely than not to don a Leafs sweater come October. Dubas, who has known Johnsson for five years, singles out his tenacity on the ice but also his smiley-faced joy playing the game and his beloved dressing-room presence. “He’s a player who’s going to continue to add to his skill set, continue to improve, continue to stay healthy, continue to build himself, stronger, faster,” Dubas said. “And I can see him being a major contributor to the Maple Leafs for a long time.”

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