Three days ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock did a little internal wheeling and dealing.
His big move in preparation for Saturday’s important game against the Montreal Canadiens was actually made the night before, during Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. Babcock moved left winger Andreas Johnsson up from the third line to play with centre Auston Matthews and right winger Kasperi Kapanen.
This created a line with a lot of speed, as all three of them can fly, and it paid off quickly. Johnsson, who was already firing away at Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in tandem with William Nylander and finished with 10 shots on goal, scored the Leafs’ first goal early in the third period.
Babcock liked the new line so much he kept it together for Friday’s practice. Patrick Marleau was moved down to play with Nylander and Connor Brown. Nylander, by the way, was one of the best forwards on the ice along with Johnsson in the Caps game. With no return from his concussion in sight for Nazem Kadri (the only word on Friday is he will not play against the Habs), Nylander’s substitution for Kadri should revive the old debate over whether he best serves the Leafs as a centre or a winger.
Matthews is looking forward to playing a full game with Johnsson because he sees the possibilities of all that speed. “It opens up so much space for all three of us,” he said. Matthews needs to be right because the Leafs saw their offence cool off in what is now a three-game losing streak.
The way Matthews sees it, opponents should be worried enough about the trio simply blowing past them that they will back off as the unit moves up the ice. This means they might be able to fly through the middle at top speed “more and more,” Matthews said.
And if the defenders move up to cut that rush off, Matthews said there are opportunities to dump the puck near the offensive blueline and let Johnsson and Kapanen win foot races to it.
Matthews says “it’s a blast” playing with Johnsson, 24, who was called up from the Toronto Marlies farm team late last season and won a regular job through the playoffs. With the departures of Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk it was expected Johnsson’s scoring contributions would grow this season but it did not work out that way at first.
Johnsson, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 181 pounds in the Leafs guidebook, found the going heavy in his first full NHL season. In the Leafs’ first 23 games this season, Johnsson had a mere two goals and one assist and found himself sitting in the press box for five of those games.
However, Johnsson’s determination and willingness to go to the net and into the corners despite his smaller frame saw him find his legs by late November. He erupted with a hat trick in a win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 24 and in 25 of the Leafs’ next 27 games (he missed two with injuries) Johnsson piled up 14 goals and 15 assists.
“I think [Johnsson] gets himself in good position to get the puck and shoot and make plays,” Matthews said. “He can skate and he’s not afraid to go in the dirty areas, go in the corners, go in front of the net.
“That’s part of why he’s been so successful because players a lot of times don’t figure a guy of his size is going to go to those dirty areas. But he does and he battles and he capitalizes on his chances, too.”
Johnsson, who attributes his surge over the past two months to his determination and energy, is just as effusive as Matthews about their latest pairing (they have played together occasionally before).
“[Matthews] is so skilled and so smart,” Johnsson said. “Whenever you play with him he gives you time on the ice, either with the puck or without the puck. It’s almost like you don’t have to work as hard to play with him because you get set up so good.”
There was a change on defence as well on Friday. Jake Muzzin played with Nikita Zaitsev because Jake Gardiner was excused from practice for what was officially called a maintenance day. But Babcock was non-committal about the chances of Gardiner, who took a big hit from Caps forward Tom Wilson on Thursday, playing on Saturday. “We’ll see,” he said.
Finally, while Babcock is open to the idea of Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas making a deal before Monday’s trade deadline he does not seem to have his heart set on it.
“What you’ve got to do is weigh the cost versus the reward and evaluate the level of your team and where it’s at and what you’ve got to do to help the team,” he said. “Just because you may want somebody doesn’t mean you can afford him. That’s kind of like life.”