If you’re a talented but unheralded and undersized hockey player looking to get to the NHL, the template provided by Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde is a pretty good place to start. Both of them have been part of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and both are in the NHL. Marchessault makes $5 million a year and once Gourde completes the final year of his deal, he’ll move into that neighborhood, too.
With that as a way of introduction, we present Andreas Johnsson. Unlike Marchessault and Gourde, Johnsson was actually drafted. But he might as well have not been. Like the two NHLers, Johnsson has taken a deliberate development path and is now ready to make his mark in the NHL. And that was no more apparent than during the AHL playoffs, where Johnsson followed up a point-per-game season by winning post-season MVP honors en route to leading the Toronto Marlies to their first championship. For a player who was once deemed to be lacking intensity, he was dogged on every puck and fought for every inch of the ice. He was dynamic and fast and dazzling, scoring 10 goals and 24 points in 16 playoff games, a time of year when the checking gets tighter, the penalty calls become less frequent and the big boys come to play.
It was a tour-de-force performance for a player who was drafted 202nd overall in 2013 and who came over in 2015 for the AHL playoffs, only to be injured in his second game. There have been stops and starts since then, but Johnsson is giving indications he could develop for the Toronto Maple Leafs into what Gourde is for the Lightning and what Marchessault has become for the Vegas Golden Knights. “He’s taken the long road to get here,” said Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s another example of how it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted or even if you’re drafted. You just keep working and the cream rises to the top eventually.”
With his play, Johnsson has earned himself the luxury of a one-way deal at the NHL level, one that will most certainly require him to go through waivers to go back to the AHL. But after the 23-year-old’s performance this season, coupled with the fact the Maple Leafs will be looking to fill holes created by the departures of Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk, that possibility looks incredibly remote. “This season it clicked for him right around December,” Keefe said. “Offensively, the game seemed like it started to slow down for him at this level, and it just got to a point where it became obvious he didn’t belong here. That’s why he needed an opportunity at the higher level, and he got that.”
The road has indeed been a long one for Johnsson – not as long as it was for both Gourde and Marchessault, but one with almost as many bumps. After finishing the season with Frolunda in Sweden two years ago, Johnsson joined the Marlies for the playoffs but was knocked out of the lineup in just his second playoff game after an elbow to the head from Dan Kelly of the Albany Devils. “When you’re not getting injured, you think you’re kind of untouchable a little bit,” Johnsson said. “And when you start to get injuries, you start to realize, ‘Hey, this might not be easy.’ You have to be really prepared, and you have to do the hard work. And I feel maybe more…humble? Is that the right word?”
It is exactly the right word. Johnsson was so shy that it took him until the 2016 training camp to tell people – including those in the organization who spelled his name wrong on his sweater in the playoffs – that his name is Johnsson, not Johnson.
This season, he earned his way to the Leafs for nine regular-season games and played in six of Toronto’s seven games in the first round of the playoffs, drawing largely fourth-line duty. After the season, he went back to the Marlies and played on the top line with fellow prospects Carl Grundstrom and Miro Aaltonen and took his game to a higher level. “You can’t say enough about his character to come down here after showing he’s an NHL player,” Keefe said. “For him to come down with the type of attitude he did to be a difference-maker says a lot about him.”
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.