Sure, the idea of a rebuilding team trading away a young prospect on a two-way deal may have rubbed some fans the wrong way, but Johnsson was only a season removed from a 20 goal, 43 point breakout season with the Leafs and looked like the perfect wing sniper to pair up with young, ascending centers like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
Factor in the news that Jesper Bratt would miss out on the opening weeks of the 2020-21 NHL season while he dealt with contractual negotiations/international quarantines, and suddenly, Johnsson looked like the kind of player who could once again find himself scoring double-digit goals even in an abbreviated season.
Some overly eager writers even went so far as to tell fans to “Get on the Andreas ‘Mango’ Johnsson Train ASAP” which looked pretty foolish when he was logging single-digit fourth line minutes in an ugly Game 1 loss to the Flyers.
But now? Not so much.
The New Jersey Devils can take advantage of Mango SZN in the Garden State.
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In a rare three-line leapfrog from the fourth to the first, Andreas Johnsson entered the New Jersey Devils’ second game against the Philadelphia Flyers lined up next to Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt on Lindy Ruff‘s top-line.
Clearly dissuaded by his team’s sub-optimal efforts against the Flyers in their initial bout, when coupled with the slow starts of perceived stalwarts Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev, Ruff opted to shake up his lineup and give Hughes a pair of legitimate shooters to help optimize his facilitation game.
In theory, the idea made sense.
While Yegor Sharangovich shined early as a top-line winger, scoring an overtime goal in his second professional game, the young KHL standout and the slumping Palmieri haven’t exactly been taking good shots in regulation through their first seven contests of the season. Swapping those two out for more efficient scorers would conceivably unlock Hughes’ impeccable playmaking abilities even further and allow the Devils to play the sort of fast, free-flowing offense Ruff implemented during training camp.
If Hughes can get players like Ty Smith and Miles Wood involved in the offensive zone on special teams – a pretty impressive feat considering neither player was expected to shine in 2020-21 – imagine what he could do with a 5-on-5 pairing that plays to his strengths?
Enter, the Mango.
Though he technically initially joined Ruff’s starting lineup alongside Hughes and Bratt in the second game against the Flyers, Johnsson really came into his own in the first game of the Devils’ back-to-back matinee series against Taylor Hall and the Buffalo Sabres – playing 19:12 split over a season-high 24 shifts while scoring his first goal off an assist from Damon Severson and Hughes.
Johnsson looked smooth, confident, and concise. His wrist shot looked like a laser coming off his stick, and he used it to precisely pick apart a typically locked-in Linus Ullmark.
Had this been the extent of Johnsson’s offensive output in Buffalo, it would have surely earned him a longer look in a top-six role, but his follow-up performance one day later might have locked the 26-year-old into a top-line role for the foreseeable future.
In a game without Travis Zajac, who was placed on the COVID Protocol list, Ruff reassembled his Game 2 Flyers starting line with Bratt replacing new fourth line stalwart Bastian and was promptly rewarded with the best offensive game of the Devils season (more on that here).
Though the stars of the game unquestionably belonged to the fourth-line duo of Wood and Michael McLeod, who combined for four goals and five points in about 31 minutes of on-ice time, Johnsson was able to score his second goal in as many games – even if the puck technically may have touched Hughes last.
Johnsson was once again engaged at both ends of the ice, kept moving to give Hughes active outlet options, and found ways to impact the game even without the puck on his stick. Though the pairing of Hughes with Johnsson and Bratt certainly wasn’t one Devils fans expected when the season opened up, it’s clear the looks has been incredibly fruitful and should probably remain the team’s top option moving forward until a better triplet becomes available – which may or may not happen once Hischier is active.
Is Andreas Johnsson fixed? Did it just take him some time to get acclimated to the fine weather of North Jersey? Or maybe he’s just an early afternoon guy who prefers to get his hockey out of the way before dinner? No matter the reason, it’s clear the New Jersey Devils are finally getting the sort of production they expected out of the former Maple Leaf when they flipped Joey Anderson to Toronto for his services. Will it last? Only time will tell, but it’s pretty safe to say Lindy Ruff should ride his current top (and fourth) line pairings for the foreseeable future.