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Andreas Johnsson is ready for the next step in Toronto

The speedy winger is coming off an MVP performance in the AHL playoffs and his presence will help the Maple Leafs overwhelm opponents this season

Given how fast Andreas Johnsson moves around the ice, it’s hard to believe the Swedish left winger was once seen as sluggish. But as teenager, Johnsson was playing through asthma – only he didn’t know it. Once he was diagnosed, Johnsson could take the necessary precautions to make sure he didn’t run out of gas during a shift and these days, sluggish is the last word you’d use to describe the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie.

A seventh-round pick in 2013 (partly because of the undiagnosed asthma), Johnsson now has the chance to break out in the NHL on a very deep Toronto squad.

“He came in and earned his status,” said defenseman Travis Dermott. “He wasn’t given too many things and he’s such a hard worker off the ice that he’s constantly getting better.”

Dermott saw that first-hand last season in the AHL playoffs, when he and Johnsson helped the Toronto Marlies march to the team’s first-ever Calder Cup championship. Johnsson was named MVP on the strength of 24 points in 16 playoff games, including his two-goal, three-point masterpiece in Game 7 of the final against Texas, where he and linemates Carl Grundstrom and Miro Aaltonen wiped the Stars off the map in a 6-1 drubbing.

“It was a really fun year,” Johnsson said. “A lot of guys were there from the year before and the new guys were really good. To grow as a team and win the Cup – it’s hard to describe.”

Johnsson’s quickness in that final series was very noticeable and now that he has earned a spot in the NHL, he intends on using it again.

“I use my speed as much as I can to pressure the other team to make bad plays,” he said. “If I can skate hard, forechecking and backchecking, and take the puck myself to make fast plays, that’s a big asset.”

One of the interesting storylines surrounding the Leafs this year is the revamped penalty-kill unit. Last season, grinding types like Leo Komarov and Zach Hyman did the heavy lifting amongst the forwards, while this year promises more skill and speed in the form of Johnsson and burner Kasperi Kapanen, not to mention deadly weapons John Tavares and Mitch Marner.

And if Johnsson doesn’t catch you in open ice, he’s more than willing to dig it out of the trenches.

“Down in the corners, beating him off a puck is definitely a feat you can be proud of,” Dermott said. “He’s really good at protecting the puck and stripping the puck off guys as well. And he’s only going to get better.”

Last season, Johnsson got into nine games with the Maple Leafs, averaging under 12 minutes of action per contest. He played with Tomas Plekanec (who never really got on track in Toronto) and Kapanen more than any other linemates, putting up a Corsi rating of 57 percent. Johnsson is once again slated to line up with Kapanen, but now Par Lindholm comes in as the fourth-line center. Given the match-up problems Toronto will give teams with their top three lines, that fourth unit will get some nice chances to cause havoc, especially if Johnsson and Kapanen use their speed the way they’ve demonstrated in the past.

“My goal this year was to take a spot with this team,” Johnsson said. “Step One, now I have an opportunity.”

An opportunity that, once upon a time, would have seemed like a longshot. In hindsight, it’s almost baffling that Johnsson managed to play high-level hockey for years without knowing he has a breathing problem.

“In the beginning I thought, ‘I wonder where I’d be if I knew before,’ ” Johnsson said. “But I got better and better, so it wasn’t a negative thing. Lucky enough, I was still in the spot that I could compete in the highest league in Sweden. So I put that behind me and only look forward.”

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