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Johansson Hopes to Make his Mark in DC

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
In three of the last four NHL Entry Drafts, the Washington Capitals have used a first-round selection to draft a Swedish-born and developed center. On the same day that 2006 first-rounder Nicklas Backstrom inked a 10-year contract extension to stay with the Capitals for the next decade, the Caps also signed 2009 first-rounder Marcus Johansson to a standard three-year entry level pact.

“Marcus was our first-round draft selection in the 2009 draft,” says Capitals general manager George McPhee. “He had a very good season in the Swedish Elite League this year and we think he’s ready to compete for a full-time job with the Caps this coming season. He is an intelligent player who brings speed and competitiveness to the rink every night and he’s a good leader. He was the captain of the Swedish team at the World Junior Championship this year.”

Johansson, a 5-foot-11, 189-pound native of Landskrona, Sweden, will be given a chance to crack the Caps’ roster this fall. Backstrom made the team’s 2007-08 opening night roster, just over a year after he was drafted. Johansson will be seeking to match that feat this September.

“I’m going to give it my best shot,” says the personable pivot. “[I will] get advice from Nicklas and give it my best. Hopefully I can play for the Capitals.

“This is a part of a dream coming true. To be able to play as Nicklas has done and to be able to be here for his whole career almost, that’s a huge thing. Of course I want at some time in my life to be able to do that, too.”

“It’s been a dream since I was a little kid to play in the NHL and in an organization like this, it’s amazing. But I hope to be able to live up to it and do a great job and be able to play here and contribute. Of course it came a little earlier than I thought and expected, but I really appreciate it.”

Johansson won’t be held to the same high performance standards established by Backstrom on the ice. While Backstrom was the fourth player chosen overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Johansson was chosen late (24th overall) in the first round of the 2009 draft. While Washington currently has a need for a second-line center, the Caps won’t expect Johansson to occupy that lofty depth chart perch as a 20-year-old freshman in 2010-11.

“I’m not sure where he’d fit in the lineup, but that’s not the expectation right now,” says McPhee, when queried about the second-line center vacancy.

Like Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin before him, Johansson has been honing his game at a high level in his native country, playing against men rather than boys. Skating in the Swedish Elite League for a second straight season as a teenager in 2009-10, Johansson totaled a respectable 10 goals and 20 points in 42 games. That exactly doubled his output from 2008-09, figures that were notched in 45 games.

“That helps a lot,” says McPhee, of Johansson’s prior experience. “You saw it with Alex and you saw it with Nicky. They were playing with men before they came over. It makes a big difference. You always want them playing at the highest level they can play at, as long as they’re playing well. And he played with men and he played well. There will be some adjustments, but we think he can help this year.”

Just as Ovechkin took Backstrom under his wing and helped nurture him along at the NHL level, the Caps expect Backstrom to do the same for Johansson.

“It’s great to have another young player.” says Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis. “It’s wonderful to see kind of a tradition. When Nicklas joined the Capitals, we told his family we would treat him like he was our son. We told the Ovechkin family the same thing. Alex kind of adopted Nick as a younger brother and I think that’s what our culture will do now. We’ll embrace Marcus; Nicklas will take him under his wing.”

“I’ve seen him a couple of times,” says Backstrom of Johansson. “I’ve seen him at the World Juniors. He’s a great player. He’s fast, he has speed and he’s a smart player, too. I think if he does his best he is going to have a good chance to play here.

“I think he’s a great player if he just can adjust from Sweden to here with the smaller rink and everything, I think everything’s going to be fine. [He’s a] young player who has all of his career to look forward to.”

Backstrom needed just a bit more than a month at the start of his first season to hit his stride, and that has to be seen as the exception rather than the norm.

“For me, it was kind of tough in the beginning,” admits Backstrom. “I think it’s going to be easier for him because I’m here and I’m a Swedish guy. He can ask me everything; I was in the same situation. On the ice, he just needs to go out and play, no pressure. He’s coming to a good team. Off the ice, just enjoy it. He’s going to have a good time. The move from Sweden to here in Washington is really fun. I was excited to do that and I’m still excited.”

For his part, Johansson is eager to get started.

“I am going to work as hard as I’ve ever done and I’m going to get prepared as well as I can,” he declares. “I’m going to get over for the camps and get to know the city more and get to know the smaller rink. I am going to get as prepared as I can and get ready for this.”

For Backstrom and for Johansson, the adjustment to the smaller, tighter ice surface and the more physical North American style of play are the most difficult changes to make.

“It’s a lot smaller on both sides,” notes Johansson. “The blue lines are moved and there’s not that much of a game in the [neutral] zone. It’s more ‘going to the net’ hockey. That’s some of the things I’ve got to get used to, to be able to play over here and just know for myself that I am able to do it.”

As he grew up in Sweden, Johansson looked up to the usual Swedish stalwarts. But lately, he has cast his eye to a younger Swedish star.

“It’s been of course mostly Swedish players since I’m from Sweden, like Peter Forsberg and those players,” says Johansson, when queried as to which players he enjoys watching. “Actually I’ve been looking a lot at Nicklas and admiring at his game and the way he plays, and the way he plays with the puck. I think he’s a great player and that’s kind of the way I like to play.”

If he catches on in the District this fall, Johansson will give an already young team another infusion of youth.

“It’s a young team that plays fun hockey and it’s fun hockey to watch,” he says. “It’s offensive hockey and I think that suits me pretty well.”

“I committed – even though we had a very, very good season last year – that we’d be better next year,” declares Leonsis. “I think the way that we will continue to improve is by bringing in young players who learn our system, who are coachable and who want to be here.

“I view what we did with Nick as just being consistent with the plan that we articulated: build a young core and reward the great people and the great players who play here. We’d much rather make those kinds of commitments to not only great players, but to really wonderful human beings who appreciate the fan base, the city and have the responsibility that we’re in this together. Certainly Nicklas has proven to be that kind of individual just as Alex had. I’m hoping that we’re able to welcome and embrace and integrate great young players like [John] Carlson and like Marcus, and that’s how we’ll continue to have upside as a franchise.”
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