Calle Johansson is one of my all-time favorite Washington Capitals players. He’s one of the most consistent two-way defenseman I’ve ever seen play and one of the gosh-darn nicest and funniest guys in the world.
That’s why this is so awkward. Around 8:50 PM on Monday night, tucked in between Alex Ovechkin’s media presser and the NHL Awards tomorrow, the Capitals’ Mike Vogel released the news that Johansson will not return next season as an assistant coach. He has stepped down and will be returning to Sweden.
“I’m really sorry,” says Johansson, via telephone from Sweden of his difficult decision. “We really liked it. It was a tough decision, really tough.
“The main reason was that our youngest daughter, Madeline, was going to high school over here in Sweden. And she missed one year, and that’s okay. But she didn’t want to miss any more and she really missed her friends. That was the main reason; so my daughter could go back to school in Sweden with her friends. That’s it.”
Under Johansson’s two years behind the bench, the Capitals defensive corps hemorrhaged goals like candy from a beaten piñata. The whole danged former-Caps-coaching-triumvirate of Adam Oates, Olie Kolzig, and Johansson was a marked failure. The Caps couldn’t hold leads and did not play anything resembling a team defense. They missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
A lot of our commenters look at Johansson’s coaching performance like this: the team’s defense was bad, therefore the coach in charge of the defense was bad, and therefore he deserves all your rage.
I don’t think it’s that simple.
Consider a few things out of Johansson’s control.
- Adam Oates was unwilling to collaborate with respected goalie coach Dave Prior. Prior quit, so Oates promoted Olie Kolzig to teach the goaltenders Oates’ tactics. How much Oates’ systems and philosophies seeped into the other assistants coaching is unknown.
- George McPhee wasn’t able to develop a top-tier defense in the organization. He plugged-in veterans like Tom Poti and Roman Hamrlik to go along with the team’s younger talent, but it never clicked. In 2005, McPhee drafted two defensemen who appeared at the time to have top-four potential: Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley. Both prospects, who would be in their NHL primes now, flamed out.
- The Capitals were unable to fully develop many of their draft picks, including first round draft pick Jeff Schultz, who was bought out after the 2013 season.
- Because of the team’s lack of top tier defensive depth, John Carlson and Karl Alzner have been forced to eat minutes as top-pairing defenders. It is unclear if either player is truly a top-pairing defenseman.
- Depth defensemen John Erskine and Jack Hillen got hurt early on. At no point did either play like he was capable this season. The team was forced to turn to journeymen and rookie defenders. The team’s bottom pairing struggled the entire season.
Then let’s look at things Johansson could control.
- Mike Green led the team in possession and– despite some painful defensive woes (don’t bring up the odd-man breaks)– he had a good season.
- Despite Adam Oates’ initial refusal to play Dmitry Orlov, Dima had a breakthrough season. He finished second on the team in puck possession and found confidence in his stick-handling and skating ability. This happened despite Oates’ insistence on moving the puck within the first few seconds of them owning it. Orlov appears to have a very bright future.
- Rookies Nate Schmidt and Patrick Wey, players who had to be coached up and integrated onto the team quickly, played well and appear to be promising prospects. Johansson had to integrate five different rookie defenseman into the lineup at different times. All of them performed admirably.
- Then there’s Connor Carrick. While Carrick struggled during his rookie season (as a 19-year-old), his positioning, strength, and board work improved over time, despite consistently poor possession statistics. At the end of the year, he credited Johansson for making him a better player.
Actually, all Caps defenders rallied around Johansson’s work as coach, while other players struggled to do the same for Adam Oates.
So, sure, Johansson was a part of the team’s disappointing season and many fans will see him as the escape goat. I understand that. I personally don’t think he was a bad coach, and I sure hope this isn’t the last I see of him.
He will always be one of the greatest Capitals of all time. The team should invite him to the Winter Classic Alumni Game. I would be excited to see him again.