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Know your enemy: Andreas Johnson — An interview with the Maple Leafs' next Swedish star

Johnson spoke about another successful season in the SHL, and the transition to North America he will make this summer with an eye on cracking the Leafs' roster next year.

While rushing off the ice, Andreas Johnson was adamant that he couldn't stop to talk. He had to visit a local school and talk about Frölunda, and how important it is to work as a team in order to succeed. But I was offered his phone number in order to catch up later for an interview.

Zeb: Thanks for taking the time, Andreas. You are driving, so I am going to jump straight into it.

You really are a Frölunda player through and through, having grown up in the corridors here during your father's career, who is a player that is more or less described as royalty here in Frölunda. Did you ever think you would be part of the senior team when you started playing ice hockey?

Andreas Johnson: I got to hear a few times that "Oh, that's the son of Jonas Johnson," but it has never really been any problems, I have always thought it was fun that my dad was so good and successful.

Did you get any tips from the other players in the team while you were hanging around?

Not really, not at that time!

Did you ever imagine growing up and playing in Frölunda?

Not really, at that time it was more fun to get to the dressing rooms and run around among the players, I used to pester the equipment manager to get used and broken sticks. I was playing hockey in Kungsbacka [a town 30 km south of Gothenburg] and at that time I had no ideas or dream to play in Scandinavium or for Frölunda. It was more about having fun, meeting up with friends, and playing some hockey.

Writing for a mainly North American public, that might not know you as well, how do you describe yourself as a hockey player? This year you seem to have become more of a power-play specialist...

How I would describe myself...? Well I'd like to think I am more of a finisher, quite fast on my skates, I like to play give-and-go, I like to finish ... with a goal!

How do you feel you have progressed in your development over the last couple of seasons? You were almost fatigued when playoffs started the first season with the senior team, and last year you had a tough injury in the playoffs. Would you like to elaborate with this in mind?

Yes. I didn't really know what to expect in regards to that injury when this season started, and how much that would affect me ... and by that I mean more mentally, since I could do my regular summer training. I could push the same weights, even more in many ways, but I was still a bit afraid in the beginning, more psychological than anything else. I had to really try my knee out. Would it hold up? But otherwise it hasn't really been a big problem with my knee, and I have had a good piece of luck that it healed as well as it did.

You started the season with a few Champions Hockey League games, and that was probably good in regards to the injury. You continued with ferocious pace in the SHL, and suddenly you got called up to the national team.

Exactly. I was part of the national team last year once, and now again. It feels great to see that they also think you have played well; you get proof that you are doing well at the club level, and that it is being recognized.

You have plenty of teammates from Frölunda in the national squad. How do they treat you? Do they tell you that you have to pick up the pucks?

Yeah. It was me and a few of the other young ones that had to pick up the pucks, back to basics sort of thing. I am not really used to that now that we have so many young ones in Frölunda. Might be good to regain that skill before joining the NHL.

And how much do you hear from Toronto over the season, and what do the normally say to you?

This year we have had contact quite a bit. They check in to see how I am doing, ask how I feel. We text a bit. They have been here a few times — twice, actually. They will be around again later this season.

Not only for me though, they will go around Europe, as they will scout out quite a few more guys. It would be weird if they checked only my matches.

How much do you follow Toronto during the season?

We shouldn't lie and say I am up every night to watch them. I check highlights every day, usually in the morning, so you know if they win or lose. You keep abreast of trades and points. You don't have total control, but you have a general idea at all times. Every time they have played a game, I will check the result.

You are going across the Atlantic to Toronto next year — it is more or less confirmed. Are you prepared to do your time in the AHL, even if [former Frölunda teammate] Mattias Janmark set the bar high for the rest of you by joining the Dallas Stars directly?

Absolutely. I am going to come over and fight for a place [on the team]. If you don't get that place you never know what will happen, but I am definitely ready to go over there and play in the the AHL if I don't make the NHL team.

How big of a difference is it for a European player to go from an Olympic-sized rink to an NHL rink, in your opinion?

I have never really played a game on an NHL rink, but when I was younger, I practised a few times on a smaller rink. What you hear and read is that the tempo isn't higher, but you will have less time to control the puck because there is less space and less distance to cover, thereby also granting less space to work with as a player. Because of that you probably have to dump a few more pucks rather than have a controlled entry; there will be more body checks.

The main thing is probably that the angles you take your shots from will be different. But in the end, it is still a game of hockey. I think it will go quite fast to get into it, where you can go at full speed, from which areas you can shoot, etc. You have to give it a few games, but then I expect to be right in the middle of it.

Is there anything you will miss when leaving Sweden?

I actually don't know. I have never lived anywhere else but in Gothenburg. So I don't know how it is to move away and what to expect, it will be a completely new experience.

There is a lot of talent in the SHL this year, and last year as well. Which player (other than yourself) do you think has the best chance to make a big impact in the NHL?

I think Oscar Lindblom in Brynäs (Philadelphia Flyers pick) will do very well. Then Kristian Vesalainen [eligible for 2017 Draft]; he seems so mature. He scored his first professional goal this last weekend. He has been so good when he has been part of the team, he really deserved that goal. He will be a great player by the looks of it.

Thank you Andreas, we appreciate you took time off for us!

Thank you!

***

A few days after the interview was done, I heard that Johnson has been sort of a father figure for Vesalainen: Frölunda's talented 16-year-old Finn. When Vesalainen scored his first goal as a professional, Johnson got the assist. Previously the rookie's only professional point was an assist, so the goal was way more meaningful.

Playing without his name on his jersey, and on Frölunda's second line with Johnson and Johan Sundström (New York Islanders prospect), he netted a rebound from in close.

I could not stop watching the replay, as after the puck went in, Johnson rushed over to almost lift the six-foot-three, 203-pound goal-scorer into the stands in celebration, with a smile that probably lit up the whole of Scandinavium.

The whole team celebrated the achievement in a way that speaks volumes about how appreciated Vesalainen is, and the team spirit of Frölunda in itself. Remember the name, it won’t be the last we hear about the next super talent from Finland.