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Johansson's return to the lineup will come down the middle

Versatile forward will begin trip at center out of necessity

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- When the Wild acquired forward Marcus Johansson from the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason, the belief initially was that he'd be a top-6 centerman for the team this season.

That didn't come to fruition through the first 10 games, as Wild coach Dean Evason put Johansson on the left wing during training camp and had him stay there for the first handful of games. 

But after an injury kept him out of the game in Colorado on Feb. 2, Johansson was one more than a dozen players who found themself on the team's COVID-19 protocol list.

For three days, Johansson said he felt pretty sick, with a fever and flu-like symptoms. 

"I haven't done much," Johansson said. "First few days, I was pretty sick, maybe three days or so. But then it's been better and better and slowly getting back. You kind of have a little more respect for it."

While he and others would have preferred to avoid the illness, the two-week stoppage did allow for Johansson and others, like defensemen Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon, to work through various injuries while missing minimal game time. 

Like Johansson, Dumba will play on Tuesday. Spurgeon will travel with the team to the West Coast, and while he seems unlikely to play on Tuesday, will likely play at some point in the not too distant future. 

So in that regard, while the circumstances were less than ideal, the timing wasn't terrible.

Now on the other side of his bout with COVID, Johansson will not only return to the lineup, he'll begin the road trip playing where some thought he'd begin all along: at the center position. 

With Nick Bonino still on the protocol list, and not likely to play on Tuesday, Johansson's move to the middle is almost out of necessity. 

Nick Bjugstad and Joel Eriksson Ek were removed with Johansson on Saturday, but without Bonino, the Wild were without an obvious candidate to man one of the center positions. 

Enter Johansson, who has played a fair amount of the position in his NHL career. He admits he's had more success on the wing, but that he feels comfortable in the middle. The position also suits his strengths as a skater.

"I've done it plenty, so it's not that hard. It's kind of a little bit bigger responsibility I think defensively especially, but other than that, try and keep moving your feet," Johansson said. "I think you're naturally moving more as a centerman. That's one part that fits me well I think."

Evason, during his time as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals, saw Johansson man that middle position at times, so he knows he has a capable player there. 

"I'm very comfortable. I think everybody is. Our staff is. He's comfortable playing everywhere," Evason said. "He was excited. We talked to him [Saturday] and said we were just going to have a look at it there. We have some options obviously. Nothing is set in stone.

"His biggest asset is his legs and he can use them in the middle getting up and down the ice obviously, getting back in our zone real quickly. But exiting our zone quickly and he's got a real good head on his shoulders as far as what we want to do defensively. So we're sound down in that area but really push the pace offensively as well."

Once Bonino returns, which Evason said was likely to happen "shortly," Johansson could once again migrate back to the wing. 

In the meantime, Johansson will get a heck of an opportunity, playing behind two of the Wild's best players during the early part of the season, left wing Jordan Greenway and right wing Kirill Kaprizov. 

"In practice, I think it's been real good so far," Johansson said. "Jordan, obviously, has been real good for us so far, he's big and strong and he wins pucks. Kaprizov is just so good with the puck. He makes plays out of nothing. I think he'll be good, but we've gotta work and work hard and win those pucks. And if we can hold onto that as much as possible, I think that's when we'll be at our best."

In terms of things the team must prioritize coming off a two-week layoff, Johansson said a strong early start will be key. 

"I know that's always important, but especially when we haven't played that much, it's gonna be different," Johansson said. "I think we've gotten some good practices now, so I think we'll be ready that way, but games are always different. I think when we've played our game, and we don't make it too hard on ourselves, I think that's going to be especially important now to not make it too hard on ourselves and give away too much of our game."

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