In the postgame visitors’ locker room at Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night Jason Chimera approached Marcus Johansson, his linemate in overtime of the Capitals’ 3-2 loss to the Flyers, and patiently and supportively explained to the rookie the imperative of maintaining defensive zone coverage on the opposition defender bearing down on their netminder. Johansson’s rookie error of sagging back further and further in his own end, affording Andrej Meszaros an improved shooting vantage on Semyon Varlamov, possibly cost the Capitals a point Tuesday night. It was a rookie mistake. The larger mistake, however, was his coach putting him out there on the ice in that situation.
Johansson of course has played precious little four-on-four sudden death hockey on a North American sized ice sheet in his handful of years in professional hockey. In that perilous, pressure-packed moment in his own end Tuesday night, against one of the best teams in the NHL, Johansson simply drew upon the instincts that have served him well as a young pro: centers generally cover low in their own end, and low he went. He was supposed to remain high and pressure Meszaros and try and force the puck out away from the threatening middle of the ice. When you’re young and inexperienced and under pressure understandably you draw upon the habits that you’ve honed successfully. It’s just that in this instance those were the wrong instincts. Johansson finished Tuesday a -2.
It’s Bruce Boudreau’s job to place the rookie in situations offering the greatest likelihood of success for the rookie. Being one half of the second forward unit out for the Capitals in overtime probably wasn’t one of them. And actually, the team’s general manager should place the barely 20-year-old Swede in the situation offering the greatest likelihood of long-term, successful development: in Hershey.
Marcus Johansson, the wager here is, will develop one day into a fine and reliable defensive pivot with decent offensive upside. He’s not that player today, however. He can’t possibly be. And because the Capitals are apprenticing him in the big league they occasionally pay a price for their greed. The Capitals are in desperate need of a veteran playmaking center for their second line. Their failure to secure one last offseason fairly forced Johansson into this season’s lineup. Time will tell about the wisdom of that decision; Tuesday night suggested it was an unwise one.
“Defensemen take [opposing] forwards and forwards take [opposing] defensemen,” a visibly dejected Bruce Boudreau acknowledged of his expectations for his four skaters in overtime. He was not going to offer instruction to his young center prospect last night in a locker room packed with disappointment but rather wait until practice back at the Flyers’ rink Wednesday morning.
Key reads, numerous other high-impact decisions demanded instantaneously, and sundry skill set enhancements are best pursued by first-year North American pros not in the National League but rather the American. The ‘A’ in AHL somewhat stands for “apprentice.” It is there that Johansson should be learning subtle stratagems that often mean the difference between victory and defeat in the big league. Johnasson’s lack of a big league physique would also benefit from competition one level lower; he is especially disadvantaged along the boards in all NHL games but especially in big games like Tuesday’s. And he also ought to work in the minors on improving his 37.5 faceoff percentage.