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Canucks sign Minnesota Wild first-round pick Filip Johansson

Considered a bust by the Wild, Johansson may still have NHL potential with the Canucks.
filip johansson wild camp
Defenceman Filip Johansson at the Minnesota Wild's 2019 development camp.

The Vancouver Canucks have added a first-round pick. No, not one in the upcoming draft but one from four years ago.

On Monday, the Canucks announced the signing of Swedish defenceman Filip Johansson, who was selected 24th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2018. The Wild didn’t sign Johansson by the June 1 deadline, making him a free agent.

The Wild will receive a compensatory second-round pick in the upcoming draft from the NHL — automatically awarded to any team that doesn't sign a first-round pick before losing their rights. For the Wild, the second-round pick was considered more valuable than Johansson himself. For the Canucks, however, it was definitely worth it to add another right-shot defenceman to their system without spending any assets.

"He doesn't do any one thing really well."

Johansson was considered a reach when he was picked in the first round in 2018. Pre-draft rankings largely had Johansson as a second-round pick — a late second-round pick at that. But the Wild didn’t have a second-round pick that year and liked Johansson, so they went off the board to take him.

“He doesn’t do any one thing really well,” said Craig Button after he was drafted, adding that ten other scouts he talked to didn’t think Johansson was a first-round pick. 

At the time, Johansson was considered an intelligent defensive defenceman with limited upside, but some scouts saw untapped offensive potential. Untapped is the right word — Johansson had just 9 points in 29 games in the junior SuperElit league in Sweden and just 1 point in 23 games in the Allsvenskan.

That offensive potential has remained untapped to this day. Now in the SHL, the 22-year-old Johansson has put up 11 points in each of his last two seasons. It’s only in the most recent playoffs that Johansson showed a little more offensive flair, scoring 5 goals and 7 points in 9 games.

That wasn’t enough for the Wild to sign him, with Wild fans largely considering Johansson to be a bust and one of their worst first-round draft picks ever.

“Johansson was, statistically, one of the worst first-round picks of the 2010s,” said Wild reporter Tony Abbott. “With just nine points in 29 Under-20 Swedish Junior games and eight in 34 games the year prior, nothing suggested he could produce at an NHL level.”

"Filip plays a solid defensive game."

Removed from the expectations of being a first-round pick, however, Johansson looks like a solid bet for the Canucks. He is general manager Patrik Allvin’s second free agent signing out of Sweden after signing Nils Åman, another draft pick that went unsigned by another team. 

For the time being, Johansson will stay in Sweden.

“Filip plays a solid defensive game and has shown consistent improvement over the past three seasons," said Allvin in a press release. "He will continue to develop his game in Sweden with Frölunda next season, but we look forward to welcoming him to Vancouver for Development Camp at UBC next month."

Johansson joins a prospect pool that lacks depth on the right side on defence. Jett Woo was a second-round pick but played as a forward to end off his AHL season. Viktor Persson and Jonathan Myrenberg have potential, but they're long shots. Johansson immediately becomes one of the best right-handed defencemen in the Canucks' system. 

Call him a Wild card — with lowered expectations and a steady defensive game that might complement the Canucks' more offensive-minded left-side defencemen, perhaps Johansson can find his way to the NHL in Vancouver.

"The biggest problem for me is my own expectations."

Johansson himself admitted that expectations may have hurt his development after he was drafted, though he said it wasn’t necessarily the expectations created by being a first-round pick.

“I think the biggest problem for me is my own expectations — sometimes they're more than I can perform and that's a bad thing," said Johansson at the Wild’s 2019 development camp. "Of course, it's good to want more and want to be better and work on things, but you need to have a good level on it. You need to sometimes feel good about yourself too, and not just push yourself too much.”

A new team with new development staff might take some of that pressure off. Johansson no longer needs to live up to being a first-round pick, with the expectations of offence that come with it, and can just focus on what he’s good at.

“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said Brad Bombardir, the Wild’s director of player development. “That's the kind of guy he is. He wants to do well. He wants to almost be perfect sometimes." 

Instead of taking a step forward offensively after being drafted, Johansson stagnated, with just 1 goal and 4 points in 47 Allsvenskan games. While playing a full season in a men’s league as a teenager is a solid step, it was far less than what would be expected from a first-round draft pick.

Still, he helped Leksands IF get promoted to the SHL with 3 points in 12 qualification games, then made the jump with them to the SHL the following season. He’s spent the past three seasons in the SHL, Sweden’s top men’s league, first with Leksands, then with Frölunda the past two seasons.

The offence still hasn’t come but maybe it doesn’t need to. If he can play a solid defensive game, Johansson could find himself on the Canucks’ third pairing in the future.

"Defensively, he's top in his group."

His defensive game is dependent on his hockey IQ and mobility. He makes excellent defensive reads and skates well, which puts him in good positions on the ice. That’s been true since he was drafted and he’s developed that ability since.

“When the puck is in his own end, he’s shown a good amount of hockey sense and can read technical offensive plays,” reads Johansson’s draft year scouting report from Hockey Prospect. “This was shown through consistent gaps, taking away shooting lanes, and using an active stick at the correct times to disrupt passes or keep his man to the outside.”

While Johansson lacks offensive creativity, he has the puck skills and vision to make a good first pass, focusing on simple, effective plays to exit the defensive zone. 

“His big strength is defensively but he can also move and skate well and he’s got good size,” said Thomas Johansson, his general manager at Leksands. “His advantage is that he’s a stay-at-home defenceman, but not just the type that skates to the red line and dumps it in and backs off. He can also join the rush, he makes a good first pass and he’s a good skater. Defensively, he’s top in his group.”

Is Johansson strong enough defensively to make it to the NHL? That’s the big question. 

He didn’t play a ton of minutes for Frölunda, averaging 16:45 per game, though he played a bit more in the playoffs. He wasn’t trusted on the penalty kill, averaging just 19 seconds per game, but he did get a bit of time on the power play despite his limited production.

At least, it was limited in the regular season. In the playoffs, Johansson suddenly exploded with offence, scoring 5 goals and 7 points in 9 games. That was enough to lead all defencemen in goals in the postseason despite playing half as many games as his peers.

Does Johansson still have untapped offensive potential?

It’s understandable why scouts keep seeing untapped offensive potential with Johansson, because he’s capable of suddenly putting up points out of nowhere and he has a decent skillset.

This slap shot goal from the regular season had some heat on it, for example.

He used his slap shot on the power play in the playoffs too, like with this rocket of a one-timer against Växjö.

Johansson also boasts a wicked wrist shot, which he displayed on this power play goal against Luleå in the playoffs.

There are certain highlights where It really seems like Johansson could be more than just a stay-at-home defenceman, such as this playoff goal against Växjö where he aggressively jumps up in the rush and rips a heavy wristshot over the shoulder of the goaltender. 

It's pretty understandable that a scout might see a play like that and believe Johansson has offensive upside and the paltry point totals should be ignored.

Here he is again, jumping up in the rush against Luleå and forcing a big rebound with another heavy wrist shot.

Then there’s this goal from the playoffs where he smartly jumps to the front of the net as his teammate wins a battle down low, then roofs the puck off the back bar, a goal that had to be confirmed by video review. That’s not a stay-at-home type of play.

As a fun bonus, Johansson shows a pretty strong stride to get back defensively despite seeming fairly certain that he had scored.

Again, here’s another aggressive play in the offensive zone, first jumping up into the slot to present a passing option, then slipping unnoticed to the backdoor to finish off the pass. It’s a tough finish too, with the pass on his front foot, but he adjusts himself well to get the puck quickly on net.

Watching these clips of Johansson confidently and aggressively jumping up in the offensive zone and displaying fantastic finish with both his wrist shot and one-timers, it seems utterly bizarre that he only managed 3 goals and 11 points in 47 games in the regular season. 

But that’s the reality. As much as he’s shown flashes of offensive flair, that’s all they’ve been — flashes. At this point, Johansson is a project, who is at least one year away from even coming to North America, at which point he’ll already be 23 years old. 

"He's such a good guy."

For the Canucks, there’s little risk. All it costs the Canucks is an entry-level contract, with the potential reward of a depth NHL defenceman. If he has a little bit more upside, all the better. For a team starved for right-handed defenceman, Johansson is the right type of gamble.

As an added bonus, Johansson gets rave reviews for his character.

“He’s just such a good guy. He’s maybe too good sometimes,” said his former assistant coach with Leksands, Jens Nielsen. “He’s always doing what you’re saying and he listens really well. He does everything you tell him. He wants to improve all the time, he’s asking a lot of questions. 

“Seriously, he’s maybe too nice sometimes.”