Leafs 3-in-3: Training camp battles
TORONTO – When the Maple Leafs made Andreas Johnsson a seventh-round draft pick in 2013, it was far from guaranteed he’d ever even play in the NHL, let alone earn a lucrative contract.
But Johnsson kept aiming at – and ultimately achieved – both objectives, poised now to enter his second full NHL campaign armed with a four-year, $13.6 million pact with Toronto. It’s the first long-term (and one-way) deal Johnsson has ever inked, and the winger isn't taking his accomplishment for granted.
“In one way [it gives me confidence], yeah. In other ways, it’s still up to me,” Johnsson said from the Leafs’ summer skates on Friday. “I want a bigger spot on the team, so it’s up to me to prove that. I might get another opportunity or two more, but I need to play as good as I can.”
Johnsson said his goal was to sign a long-term contract, putting as much emphasis on stability as he did dollar figure.
The 24-year-old had been a restricted free agent last summer as well, and ultimately accepted his qualifying offer from Toronto of a one-year, $787,500 deal so that he could “bet on myself.”
This time around, Johnsson aimed to avoid having negotiations spill into the season, while at the same time getting appropriate validation for a 20-goal, 43-point season in 2018-19.
“I’m happy for what I signed with,” Johnsson said. “It’s a little bit different than last year when I had to prove myself right away, so I’m happy. …I haven’t had a long contract like this before. But I was happy to get it done before the season.”
Once Johnsson’s future with Toronto was affirmed, his focus turned towards the coming year and how to avoid repeating last season’s slow start.
Johnsson arrived at Leafs’ training camp in September 2018 as the reigning American Hockey League playoff MVP, having led the Toronto Marlies to their first Calder Cup championship with 24 points in 16 games that June.
The run shortened Johnsson’s off-season significantly and he struggled to recover, posting such poor performances early in the 2018-19 season that head coach Mike Babcock made him a frequent healthy scratch.
It wasn’t until the Leafs faced Philadelphia on Nov. 24 that Johnsson turned the corner. He'd scored just two goals in 18 games to that point, but Johnsson exploded for the first hat trick of his career against the Flyers, and began establishing himself as an NHL player.
Johnsson used the longer runway ahead of this season to prepare at home in Sweden with trainer Peter Froberg, as well as NHLers like Henrik Lundqvist and Loui Eriksson. At the same time, Johnsson relaxed more, played some tennis, and tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to let go of his old mistakes.
“Of course [a slow start] is on my mind,” Johnsson said. “I want to have a better start this season than last. I’m going to try to prepare as much as can be. It’s been a longer summer, so I’ve been able to get the strength I want and the conditioning I want. Hopefully it will show nicely.”
Despite the way Johnsson recovered in the latter months of the season, eventually settling on a line with Auston Matthews and Kasperi Kapanen, the lack of overall consistency to his game is still frustrating.
“I felt like my highs were high, but my lows were too low,” he said. “So I want to get more even. [I want] to take a bigger step from last season. Try to score more points and take a bigger responsibility with the team.”
There may be no time like the present for Johnsson to step up, given the uncertainty Toronto is facing on the wing.
With a week to go before camp opens in Saint John’s, N.L., restricted free agent Mitch Marner hasn’t agreed to a new contract, leaving his status up in the air. Plus, Zach Hyman is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered during the Leafs’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series in April and will likely miss at least a month of the regular season.
As a result, Trevor Moore, Nic Petan and newcomer Ilya Mikheyev all project to be in the mix with Johnsson for a top-six winger spot come October.
But Johnsson isn’t worried about where, or with whom, he’ll play, or who else is or isn’t at camp. He already knew expectations will be higher for him because of the new extension, and he’s adjusted his mindset accordingly.
“I had a full [NHL] season, I know what to expect from it,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been able to be healthy and work on my body and mind. I feel like I’m coming into this season stronger than last season.”