PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Anton Johansson entered the World Junior Summer Showcase looking like something of a longshot to make Sweden’s world junior roster.
And maybe he still is — the Red Wings defense prospect, a 2022 fourth-round pick, is in a crowded mix of right-shot defenders for Team Sweden that includes fellow Red Wings prospect Axel Sandin Pellikka, who is a returner from last year’s team, 2022 second-round picks Elias Salomonsson and Mattias Havelid and potentially 2023 first-round pick Tom Willander. That was always going to make the roster tough to crack when the Swedes host the 2024 World Junior Championship this December.
But after three exhibition games in Plymouth, the 6-foot-4 Johansson has been one of Sweden’s most noticeable players on the back end. He scored the Swedes’ first goal of the tournament over the weekend in a 7-0 win over the split-squad USA Blue, tallied their only goal in a 10-1 loss to USA White, and had an assist on Sandin Pellikka’s game-winning goal over Finland Wednesday.
His tournament is now likely over, despite one remaining game on the schedule for Sweden, as the team plans to rotate its defenders so each plays three games. But if that was the totality of Johansson’s performance, he gave the national delegation something to consider between now and Christmas.
“I played my best hockey, I feel,” Johansson said after the game Wednesday.
Certainly, starting the tournament with a goal helped the big defenseman hit the ground running. Even for a big body, Johansson’s greatest strengths currently lie in the offensive zone, and that was clear from the outset. In addition to his goal, he ran the top power play in Sweden’s opening game and showed off his wheels with a power drive to the net.
Johansson logged 21 games in the SHL last season, so the junior game should feel, in some ways, easier, as he gets to square off against his peers. He acknowledged how much tougher it can be playing against men, but he also noted it was a “faster game” with the juniors, possibly due to the smaller ice surface, and he held his own with that as well — at one point snuffing out an Oliver Moore rush in which he had to turn around and skate forward to stop the speedy Moore.
After that first-game performance caught some eyes, Sweden coach Magnus Hävelid wanted to pump the brakes, cautioning “first game” after his team’s 7-0 victory, and adding “I will wait and see. … There’s a lot of energy in the group, in Anton, in everybody. Let’s see what I say after the fourth game. I (will) wait.”
And the letdown his team saw in a 10-1 loss two days later made that approach prescient. Johansson did have the lone goal in that game, ripping a point shot past Detroit prospect Trey Augustine on a five-on-three, but it’s hard for anyone to look especially good in a loss that lopsided.
Still, after a bounce-back showing by the whole team against Finland brought Sweden its second victory, Johansson had stacked up enough positives through the week to make an impression.
“He’s been terrific,” Sandin Pellikka said. “As soon as he has the puck in the O-zone, he’s a threat, and he’s good (on) the point and having some good point shots. I really like his game.”
His coach, Hävelid, was a bit more reserved, as coaches tend to be, already looking forward to what Johansson can gain from playing more in the SHL this coming season. But he acknowledged the big right-shot defender has “a lot of potential, offensively (and) defensively.”
“He’s an interesting player in many different ways,” Hävelid said. “I think he’s (had) a good tournament so far. (It will) probably be good for him to come home and play in the SHL, be more steady, that’s for those players, game by game, three games a week with tough men’s hockey, that will help him.”
Johansson’s offense seems to come rather naturally, with good instincts and skating for his size driving the way. But he’ll need to continue to show he can be counted on for his defense, both for the sake of his world junior aspirations and on his trajectory as a Red Wings prospect. He showed moments of being able to use his size in a corner to win a battle and spring a zone exit, and Johansson said Wednesday he “(felt) great defensively this week.”
It will need to continue into the regular season, of course, but with his size, it’s within his power to make that a regular fixture of his game. That will take some time in the gym, as Johansson is currently still a wiry 194 pounds. But for the Red Wings, that’s another reason to believe in his upside — when he can add some strength and more jam to his game, his offense gives him two-way potential on the right side, where Detroit is thin in its farm system.
They drafted Sandin Pellikka in part to fill that void, in addition to his power-play prowess, but they’ll need real depth there, and Johansson has shown this week that he belongs in that conversation.
He doesn’t always get the same spotlight as some of Detroit’s higher picks, but the fact he already played a role in the SHL last season is notable, especially because he didn’t turn 19 until June. Soon, he’ll be back with Leksand, vying for an even larger role with the senior team there.
And if his performance in Plymouth is any indication, he’s ready to make a run at doing that — and, just maybe, make a real run at the world junior roster in the process.
(Photo: Michael Caples / USA Hockey)