Marcus Johansson a steady performer on—and off—the ice for the Capitals

1:08 | NHL
Can anyone stop the Metro?
Saturday April 15th, 2017

The dancer asked for volunteers, but Marcus Johansson really didn’t get a choice. Someone needed to be the booty-shaking guinea pig on that Bahamian beach, so might as well force the person least likely to raise his hand into the spotlight. “I think that’s probably something he didn’t want to do,” says Daniel Winnik, a fellow Washington Capitals forward. “But we made him.”

Johansson eased into the simple sequence, bumping his hips with each beat of the bongo drum and moving to the dancer’s directions. “Back! Up! Side!” At first his moves looked comically exaggerated, which perhaps explains why Winnik’s wife, Taylor, later uploaded an Instagram video accompanied by both types of crying emojis. But as the beat picks up, the dancer starts grinding in front of Johansson. And then suddenly abandons all order to just...friggin’....go for it. By the end, arms raised and butt sticking back, he’s hopping like a leg-locked frog through the sand. “I think the hardest thing for him was trying to get low,” Winnik says, “because his pants were so tight.”

Few at Atlantis Paradise Island last Valentine’s Day—the group on the beach included teammates Karl Alzner, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom, plus their families—were surprised to see such Johansson get down with such vigor. For one thing, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree’s gyrating branches. On Washington’s annual mentors’ trips, it’s tradition for Lars Johansson to celebrate wins by dancing in the locker room; this year’s edition featured a cameo from coach Barry Trotz. “My dad’s not always like that, but when we’re having fun with a group like that, he really enjoys it,” Marcus says. “He wasn’t going to do it last trip, but they made him.”

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Sound familiar?

On the other hand, it all seems so out of character for the usually unassuming Johansson, who true to form begins a recent interview like this: “I think it’s a little bit weird talking about yourself.” The 26-year-old has given plenty good reason for attracting notice, like notching 20 goals for the second straight season, or reaching 50 points for the first time with four assists in Minnesota on March 28. But attention runs in short supply at Verizon Center, where Johansson works as the second-line left winger on a forwards corps that features: the best goal-scorer of this generation (Alex Ovechkin), one of the best passers alive (Nicklas Backstrom), an American hero (T.J. Oshie), a dazzling center whose magic conjured the nickname Harry Potter (Evgeny Kuznetsov) and a veteran nicknamed Mr. Game 7 after his in-the-clutch playoff prowess (Justin Williams).

“He’s a quiet guy, doesn’t say too much,” forward Andre Burakovsky says of Johansson. “I think he deserves to be more in the spotlight, for sure.”

Teammates know better. Spend enough time around Johansson at the rink, attend enough dinners on the road, and he’ll start to open up. He can holler pretty loud during airplane card games and packs a hurt in hotel-room wrestling. And maybe, when dusk falls and Valentine’s Day dinner ends and the dance floor opens, Johansson will even bust a few moves.

“You don’t really expect him to be like that,” Burakovsky says. “but when he’s opening up, he sticks out for sure.”

***

Go ahead. Google him. You won’t find much. Just the stats pages, which show that Johansson has 290 points in 501 career regular-season games, all with Washington. Several translated Swedish interviews too, plus the videos of the Dancing Johanssons, courtesy of some intrepid social-media sleuthing from Russian Machine Never Breaks, the Capitals-centric blog. And of course, endless articles about how, This season, Coach X would like to see Johansson shoot more.

Since Johansson won’t willingly offer much about himself—“We’re not used to bragging about ourselves or anything like that,” he says of his countrymen—wander across Washington’s locker-room carpet and go find Burakovsky. He’s the youngest of three Swedes on the two-time Presidents’ Trophy winners. Seven months away from turning 30, Backstrom is the elder statesman. This makes Johansson the middle child. No wonder he doesn’t get noticed.

In 2014-15, when Burakovsky was a 19-year-old rookie, he found that Johansson was quiet and somewhat hard to crack. Now, a typical off-night on the road involves the three Swedes getting dinner, retreating to their hotel room, and wrestling. “It always ends up them versus me, two against one, one of them always holding me,” Burakovsky says. And what are they doing? “Not tickling. It’s more pain than that for sure.”

“I think I’m 12-0 against him,” Johansson says.

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Over time Burakovsky also learned about Johansson’s more cerebral tendencies, which have steadily evolved since Johansson jumped from the Swedish Elite League to Washington in ‘10-11. “As a young guy, you just want to go out and score goals and get points and show what you can do,” Johansson says. “But I think as you get a little older, you realize that if you play the right way it’s going to come to you. You don’t have to chase it that much. I think it’s something you grow into a little bit.”

This comes out in several forms. At home, Burakovsky says, Johansson can stand and hold a golf club for 20 minutes without so much as miming a swing, instead softly thumbing the grip to check its feel. He’s also among the finickier players concerning the details of his stick. At least four times each month, Burakovsky estimates, Johansson shows him some new model that he’s trying out, just to see how it feels. “Alright, there’s definitely nothing different with your sticks,” Burakovsky will say. “They’re exactly the same.” Only Johansson can tell the subtle differences.

Some of the new twigs last a few practices, others for five games. On occasion, Johansson will use a model that he already knows feels awkward, but only for 10 minutes, “just so when I grab my own stick it feels better. After a while, you get used to it so much that it doesn’t either feel good or bad, it just is,” he says, sounding like the founder of a Buddhist hockey camp “Sometimes I like to try something else.”

In this way Johansson is always quietly probing for new advantages, which resembles Backstrom’s best trait on the ice; so does his unshakeable humility. But while Backstrom has entered an epoch of his career where recognition mostly comes from sources—read: NHL media, Capitals fans, Trotz—hollering that he needs to get more recognition, Johansson seems to escape discussion altogether. Which he gets. And prefers.

“I know Nick is overlooked,” he says. “He’s one of the best players in the world and he doesn’t get enough credit. I’m not up there. I feel like I’ve improved since the day I got here. I think it’s been better and better, and I’m becoming a better player every year and every day. That’s one of my goals, to never be happy and feel like you’ve peaked.”

Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Given Johansson’s style and role with the Capitals, though, it’s somewhat fitting that he avoids the noise. “The best supporting actor,” one teammate called him. His emotional dial ranges from stone-faced to smiling, but rarely includes anger; in seven full seasons, he’s registered more than 10 penalty minutes just once. While Backstrom twirls saucer passes and Ovechkin blasts one-timers and Oshie golfs from his knees in the slot, Johansson’s role is to stand below the goal line and set everyone else up. "As much as I bet you guys look around the league like, 'Oh, well, he gets those points because of where he is on the power play,'" Winnik says, "you still have to know what the heck you’re doing. You couldn’t just put me there and have the same results."

A wizard at transporting the puck through the neutral zone, Johansson’s best move comes once he enters the opposing blue line with possession. As an oncoming checker angles to pinch him off, Johansson will bend low and duck under contact, while maintaining control of the puck and never breaking stride.

“A lot of times, the guys don’t want you to get by on the inside, so you find a way to squeeze by on the outside,” he says. “Sometimes you get hit. Sometimes it hurts a little bit, but I think it creates a lot when you can get by, and I feel like if you get by when they’re trying to squeeze you, that guy gets caught on the wall. Whatever way you can get by.”

This would fit fine as Johansson’s motto, for all the roles he’s filled in seven NHL seasons. For a stretch he rode shotgun with Backstrom and Ovechkin, their most common third wheel until Oshie came along. Last season he filled in admirably at third-line center when Backstrom and Jay Beagle got hurt. This year he’s played exclusively wing, mostly with Kuznetsov and Williams; among trios league-wide that spent at least 300 5-on-5 minutes together this season, they ranked first in goals-for percentage, outscoring opponents 29-12.

So there was Johansson in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Thursday night, getting robbed by Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen on a rush chance during the second period. And again during the third period, showing some other-worldly hand-eye coordination at full speed to deflect Kuznetsov’s pass, even though Andersen again denied him with a glove save.

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Johansson went scoreless but finished with almost 19 minutes of even-strength ice time, second on the team. “Day in and day out, there’s not any of the, ‘Marcus was great this day and he wasn’t great the next,’” Trotz says. “I think that’s just maturity as a player. He’s developed into a real good player. Obviously his skill set, his talent set is extremely impactful in our game and what he does. He’s a real important piece, and I think he finally feels that.”

***

So what’s left to ask about? Burakovsky has an idea: “He really, really hates the ocean. You could ask him about swimming. There’s only, like, smaller fish that eat grass in Sweden, but he could never swim in the ocean because he thinks a shark is going to come up or something.”

Very well. Your rebuttal, Mr. Johansson? “I don’t like what’s under the surface, what I can’t see. That’s one of my biggest fears, I think. I grew up by the ocean. I’ve always been swimming in the ocean growing up. But once I get out so far I can’t see what’s under the surface, it scares me. If something touched my leg and I didn’t know what it was, I’d probably pass out.”

Better to stay on the beach and dance the night away.

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