WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heading into the offseason, the Washington Capitals had clear-cut needs from the get-go: a new and improved goaltending tandem, and forwards to fill in for Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and potentially Carl Hagelin. However, they still had another objective: to bolster the blue line.
With third-pairing d-man Justin Schultz and extra Michal Kempny departing for the Seattle Kraken, Washington needed to add some more depth. So, in addition to re-signing 2016 first-rounder Lucas Johansen to an extension, they also brought Erik Gustafsson and Gabriel Carlsson on board, while extending Matt Irwin.
As has been the case, the top two pairings are set, with Martin Fehervary-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen filling out that top-four. Trevor van Riemsdyk has also secured his full-time gig on the third pairing but needs a new partner. There are only LHD remaining, meaning TVR will get to switch back to his natural right side.
Although Gustafsson has been an NHL regular, and despite the Capitals also bringing in several other options, don’t count out Johansen for making the NHL jump and even becoming a regular on the blue line.
“Lucas Johansen [could be good] with TVR. I think we have pretty good depth on D,” general manager Brian MacLellan said of the 24-year-old.
It has been a long road for the 2016 first-rounder, who finally got to make his NHL debut this past season. He dished a great assist in his first game, and also took good care of the puck while playing with poise. Down in Hershey, he had a career year, setting new highs of eight goals and 28 points through 62 games, along with a +/- of plus-20.
“When you spend time down there, you’re definitely getting better,” Johansen said of his time with the Bears.
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The younger brother of Nashville Predators star Ryan, Johansen is a talented puck-mover with tremendous skating ability. He can play a pivotal role on special teams and at even strength, and he’s not afraid to join the rush, either. He possesses a wicked point shot to boot. The 6-2, 181-pound blueliner has also grown more confident in puck battles while playing a solid two-way game.
One thing that Johansen has to work on is adding more bulk and strength. That will help him when it comes to competing with Gustafsson, as the 30-year-old regular has a lot of strength, skates well and can also move the puck effectively. He had 18 points in 59 games last season with the struggling Chicago Blackhawks.
Ultimately, it’s going to be a tough battle that’ll come right down the line. However, nothing’s set in stone, and as has been evident in training camp, anyone can prove their worth and crack the opening night roster. No spots are guaranteed, and if Johansen can shine in on-ice sessions and make the most of his preseason appearances, his rookie campaign could be on the horizon. And, even if he starts off as a seventh defenseman, he has grown enough that his time with Hershey could be behind him, as he has shown that he has evolved into an NHL-caliber player.