Devils left wing Marcus Johansson (second from right) celebrates after scoring a goal during the first period against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 10, 2019, at the Prudential Center.

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Lichtenstein: Johansson May Have Finally Found His MoJo In Time To Be A Valuable Trade Chip For Devils

Steve Lichtenstein
February 11, 2019 - 1:31 pm
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Where has this Marcus Johansson been the last season and three quarters?

When he hasn’t been on the injured list, I mean.

The Devils’ wing has either finally recovered 100 percent from the multiple injuries, including two concussions last season, he has sustained since he was acquired from Washington two summers ago, or he is so itching to get traded to a contender that he realized he needs to bring his “A” game every time other NHL scouts are in attendance.

Johansson netted two goals to help the Devils break a three-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory over Carolina at a sold-out Prudential Center on Sunday afternoon.

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Even after his seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last eight games, Johansson’s production has been underwhelming when compared to his 24-goal, 34-assist output in 2016-17 as a Capital. In 72 games as a Devil, Johansson has registered just 15 goals and 21 assists. Before this little uptick, he was wallowing as a 0.42-points-per-game player this season, which saw Johansson miss 12 more games with an upper-body injury.

That’s not nearly the level Devils general manager Ray Shero envisioned when he surrendered a second-round (originating from Florida) and a third-round (Toronto’s) pick in the 2018 draft to obtain Johansson, who was a salary-cap casualty in Washington.

I thought he’d be a guy who could help drive offense in New Jersey, maybe take some pressure off 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall.

That hasn’t been the case. Johansson skates well, but he doesn’t blow by defensemen the way linemate Jesper Bratt embarrassed Carolina’s Justin Faulk to create a two-on-one that Johansson eventually buried for a 3-1 Devils lead late in the third period Sunday.

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“I think it was impressive to see how fast he was there,” Johansson said of Bratt, his fellow Swede. “Once he beat his guy, I knew the puck was coming, and I just tried to get in position.”

With a shot that can be accurate but is far from deadly, Johansson can only score when he’s in the right place at the right time. Three of his goals this season have come with the Devils’ goalie pulled for an extra attacker, where he found openings and whacked home loose pucks. 

It was similar to his first goal Sunday, when he cleaned up the loose change in front of the Carolina net following a Kyle Palmieri wrist shot from the high slot that was knocked down by Nico Hischier right to the open Johansson’s stick at the right of the crease.

Unfortunately, Johansson has spent way too much time as a Devil away from the fray. It’s awfully evident on New Jersey power plays, in which Johansson operates from the half-wall like a 2.0 version of former Devils bust Jacob Josefson. Since opponents have no fear that Johansson can let loose a snipe from that area, they can clog the middle of the ice and eliminate passes to higher-danger scoring areas.

I've seen Johansson use his vision to set up golden scoring opportunities, but overall I have found his passing to be the most overrated aspect of his game.

You can abide the great players’ high number of giveaways because you want them to always have the puck. A player of Johansson’s caliber, however, should not be giving away the puck so frequently. Johansson has been particularly dreadful in three-on-three overtimes, often needing his goaltender to bail him out after egregious miscues.  

Johansson, 28, is in the final season of a three-year, $13.75 million contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in July.

With the Devils at 21-26-8 and 13 points out of a wild-card seed with 27 games to play, Johansson needs to be dangled as a rental for a team that could use a skilled wing with experience down the stretch. Last week, New Jersey was able to trade fourth-line center Brian Boyle to Nashville in exchange for a second-round pick.

There’s no guarantee that Shero will be able to fetch that much for Johansson, but it’s common sense that Johansson’s value will continue to rise if he can sustain this little hot stretch a little while longer.

“He’s moving his feet,” Devils coach John Hynes said of Johansson’s recent surge. “I think one of the things with Marcus is he’s such a smart player and he reads a lot of plays.  Sometimes when you get like that and you’re relying on your smarts all the time, sometimes the pace of play catches up to you. But I think when you look at him right now, he just has the combination of he’s been hard on the puck, he’s moving his feet and now he’s playing at a high pace, and that allows his hockey sense and his skill to be able to come out.”

With the NHL trade deadline just two weeks away, Johansson couldn’t have found a better time to get his mojo back.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.