Just one season ago, Lucas Johansen faced an uncertain future with the Washington Capitals organization. He was sidelined with yet another injury after taking an elbow up high in a game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Johansen’s contract was up and it was a big question mark on whether or not the Capitals would even tender him a qualifying offer.
The prevailing thought was that he would not be extended an offer, but to the surprise of many, Washington elected to give him one more chance. Johansen has rewarded the Capitals with the best season of his pro career and has been a stalwart for the Hershey Bears during the 2021-22 season.
Johansen is beginning to show why Washington made him a first-round pick in 2016. The Vancouver, British Columbia was coming off of a strong season with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (WHL) when the Capitals chose him with the 28th overall selection. Johansen finished fifth on the Rockets in scoring with 49 points and was the top-scoring defenseman on the team. He dished out 39 assists that season, which was the third most on Kelowna. The blue liner added eight points in 18 playoff games as the Rockets fell in the conference finals. The performance is what drew the attention of National Hockey League (NHL) scouts and ultimately led to Washington selecting him.
After putting on the jersey and cap at the NHL Draft in Buffalo, Johansen returned to Kelowna for the 2016-17 season. He posted another solid season, compiling 41 points in 68 games. The British Columbian recorded eight assists in 17 playoff games as the Rockets again lost in the conference finals. Johansen also took on a leadership role, serving as an alternate captain.
The Chocolate Rocket
Having exhausted his junior eligibility, Johansen turned pro for the 2017-18 season and commenced his professional career in Hershey with the Bears. He went through ups and downs in his rookie season on a bad Hershey team, as Johansen was thrown to the wolves early in the season on the team’s top defense pairing. He was not quite ready for that role, defensively and struggled.
On the contrary, his offensive game was flowing. He ranked third among AHL rookie defensemen in scoring with 12 points after November and finished 2017 fifth on the team scoring list with 15 points.
When the calendar flipped to 2018, Johansen offense slowed, recording just a single assist in January. However, his defensive came picked up after he was paired with Tyler Lewington. The rest of his rookie season saw Johansen improve his positioning and decision making, defensively, while his offense was less abundant. For his rookie season, Johansen had six goals and 21 assists for 27 points in 74 games. He was a -13, but that was on a last place team that gave up 249 goals.
The 74 games played in his rookie season is more than Johansen would play in his next three seasons with the Bears. Injuries derailed his development and limited the defenseman to 59 games over the span of three seasons. He missed December and January during his sophomore season and his play was below average. Johansen’s puck management and passing were subpar. He amassed 14 points in 45 games and had the second worst plus/minus rating on the Hershey team with a -14.
The 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons would see Johansen suit up for the chocolate and white for a total of 14 games. He skated in nine games in the 2019-20 campaign and did not play after January 5. The Vancouverite registered a pair of assists in those nine games. Johansen would repeat that two-assist performance in the 2020-21 season. He played in only five games before having his season ended after taking an elbow from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Kyle Olson.
With two lost seasons, nobody would have blinked an eye if the Capitals opted to move on from Johansen last summer. Honestly, it would have been the expected outcome. Yet, on July 26, 2021, Washington decided to tender the defenseman a qualifying offer and then signed him to a one-year deal two days later. The parent club was giving their former first rounder one last chance to prove himself.
Even with a new contract in tow, Johansen’s role in the organization was in question heading into the season. Tobias Geisser and Bobby Nardella were returning after playing in Europe last season and figured to be in the mix on the left side of the defense. Alex Alexeyev was also back and the Bears knew they would likely get a lefty defenseman back from the Capitals. That defenseman turned out to be Michal Kempny. To Johansen’s credit, he didn’t worry about any of this. He just put his head down and went to work.
Renewed And Improved
When opening night rolled around, Johansen was not only in the starting lineup, but he also tallied the first goal of the season for Hershey at the 3:31 mark of the first period. He buried a one-timer on the back off of a feed from Garrett Pilon. It was Johansen’s first goal since April 13, 2019.
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) October 16, 2021
His next goal came three games later and it was a game winner with 23 seconds remaining in overtime in Charlotte.
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) October 24, 2021
The quick start gave Johansen confidence in his game. He has not gone more than five games without a point this season and has set a career high in goals with seven. The defenseman equaled his career high in points with 27 when he picked up the secondary assist on Kody Clark’s overtime winner in Bridgeport to give the franchise their 3000th career victory on April 5.
— Capitals Prospects (@jon_m_sorensen) April 5, 2022
More impressive has been Johansen’s play defensively. He has been the steadiest blue liner for the Bears this season. Gone are the issues that plagued him in the past. He carries the puck with a confidence he has not shown in previous campaigns. Johansen moves the puck out of his own zone better and his positioning has improved drastically.
Johansen is consistently one of the first defenseman deployed on the penalty kill and has posted the best plus/minus on the team with a rating of plus 24. The next closest active Bear is Dylan McIlrath at plus 12. Taking a deeper look at this stat, one gets a better appreciation of the effectiveness of Johansen this season. In 53 games, he has been a minus player only eight times and he has been worse than a minus one only once this season.
Johansen’s strong season earned him his first NHL recall in late December. The fifth year made his NHL debut on New Year’s Eve against the Detroit Red Wings. He recorded his first career NHL point in that game when he picked up the primary assist on Evgeny Kuznetzov’s second period tally.
A year ago, Johansen making his NHL debut with the Capitals seemed like a pipe dream. The defenseman deserves credit for taking advantage of the opportunity the parent club presented him. Johansen is once again a restricted free agent this summer. This time, it is a slam dunk that he will be tendered a qualifying offer, and he’s earned it.
By Eric Lord