I like to think of myself as a “goalie net half full” kind of evaluator. In almost every circumstance, even goaltenders who are suffering under the crushing weight of a passion fanbase’s ire have the ability to play to the level at which they’ve been signed; even if a goaltender isn’t likely to be the next Dominik Hasek, he or she can almost always at least achieve being a nice, respectable future Calvin Pickard.
When the Colorado Avalanche were linked to goaltender Jonas Johansson, I was fascinated. By the time they pulled the trigger on a deal that brought him on board for a sixth round draft pick, though, analysis out of Buffalo — which saw some pundits describe him as “the worst goaltender to ever wear a Sabres uniform” — raised some interesting flags.
Sometimes, viewers watch a goaltender allow too many goals in a game and write them off as terrible or shaky. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite seem to be the case with Johansson; in an hour-long sit-down full of scouting video and game highlights, I saw bad goals allowed on shaky positioning, sluggish recovery, and a confidence-barren set of hands that almost completely opened up the top half of the net for any shooter accurate enough not to fire the puck directly at the center of the goal. It’s clear that while the supporting cast in Buffalo did almost nothing to help him out, the 2014 third-round pick isn’t coming on board in Colorado to immediately take over as an improved backup alternative to Hunter Miska.
That might seem like bad news for Colorado, who desperately need some relief for starter Philipp Grubauer due to a miserably prolonged absence for number two Pavel Francouz.
But while watching a myriad of shaky goals was a bit demoralizing, there was some good in Johansson’s game that could be harnessed. The raw toolkit the 25-year old Swedish netminder brings to the table is admirable — which makes him a perfect reclamation project. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but it’s a valuable gamble for the Avalanche; they’ll just need to hope it pays off.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED
Oh boy, where to begin.
When the Avalanche announced the trade that acquired Johansson, head coach Jared Bednar suggested that the team is going to take a look and see where Johansson seems to best fit for them.
“We’ll look at him here first and make a decision on what our plan is for him,” he said, via ESPN. “He’s been on a steady progression getting better and on a good development path.”
It’s true that Johansson, looking at his overall body of work and ignoring his NHL numbers (particularly this year), has been on an upward trajectory. he was an AHL All-Star in the 2019-20 season, which saw him post a .921 save percentage for a Rochester Americans club that badly needed to shake things up. He was a big part of the team’s quality regular season performance before the year was shuttered due to Covid-19, and looked to be establishing himself as a solid option for Buffalo a few years down the line.
At the NHL level, though, things immediately fell apart.
Some goaltenders, when the defense in front of them falls apart and they start to panic, move a bit too much and open up holes that they don’t need to. They overslide their marks, get sloppy with their edgework, become too aggressive with their depth, and make too many diving saves.
Johansson, though, seemed to do almost the opposite; he stayed calm and controlled with his depth, but when it came time to make desperation saves due to Buffalo’s all-too-frequent defensive breakdowns he almost appeared to just let the puck move right through him. He doesn’t try to slide too fast to get where he needs to go, reading even a two-on-one by Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen correctly to set himself up to face the right shooter. But then, he drops to his knees and seems to misjudge the shot altogether — something that would be forgiven against Rantanen and MacKinnon if it didn’t also happen against a plethora of other NHLers over the next year, but seemingly less appealing when looking at his body of work following that ill-fated first shot:
Two minutes into his NHL career, the first shot Jonas Johansson sees is a two on one from Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Talk about nightmare fuel. pic.twitter.com/GIcsq0WTCg— Tom Hunter (@PuckDontLie) February 5, 2020
It might be a tracking inefficiency or trouble reading the NHL plays, and it certainly can’t help that Buffalo’s defensive structure has been scattered and broken since he arrived with the team last season. But it’s certainly persistent enough that Colorado, who have struggled with poor reads from Hunter Miska at the NHL level already, will likely want to see exactly how fixable the problem is before they commit to anything more concretely.
WHAT HE HAS GOING FOR HIM
My best evaluation of what Jonas Johansson looked like in the games I saw him play with Buffalo is that he looks like Anton Forsberg did with Columbus and Chicago; nerves or poor read of the game seem to be a major hindrance, but when he looks confident he’s got fantastic movement and structure.
When he was drafted in 2014, Johansson was expected to be one of the most promising names to come out of Sweden. He was one of Sweden’s standouts at the 2013 U18 World Juniors, then earned both honors as the best Under-20 goaltender in the SuperElit junior league and as a silver medalist starting for Sweden at the U20 World Juniors in 2014.
Things started to hiccup in his post-draft year, when he was left with his ice time sliced in half due to the arrival of fellow NHL prospect Felix Sandstrom on the U20 Brynäs roster. Although he’d been a shining star the year prior, he found himself shuffled between the SHL, U20 SuperElit, and Division II Allsvenskan in a season full of roster-hopping and not a whole lot of actual starting. He turned his numbers back around by the following season, though — he would ultimately become a top goaltender for Brynäs again by the 2016-17 season without too much of a tumble statistically — so he’s proven that when he’s given the chance to sit down and focus on sharpening his game again he can do it. That’s an important distinction; it’s clear that he’s capable of getting his game back on track, because he’s done it before.
Even looking at his poor game appearances from the last two years at the NHL level, it’s clear that there’s a good foundation to work with. Despite being 6-foot 5 and listed at 220 lbs, the 25-year old Johansson is a strong and comfortable skater. He’s able to get some power behind his movements, and he’s got some agility that he displays when he does make a good save — but he doesn’t seem to launch himself out of orbit and overcommit with his movements, either. If anything, he stays a bit too calm and lets the chips fall where they may; it would be a great look if he was positioning himself correctly, but it’s an ugly look when he’s allowing almost four goals a night.
That’s where the Avalanche will ultimately be taking their look, though. They’ve already given Hunter Miska a shot to show he’s got what it takes to read and react to NHL playmakers this year, and his struggles in that regard suggest that they aren’t going to be happy if Johansson does the same thing. But structurally, there’s a lot to work with in a more controlled defensive system.
So if all it took to get a big body that has some promise was a sixth round pick? It’s not a terrible gamble.