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Gameday: Johnsson in or out vs Dallas?

Will the Swedish rookie finally make his long-awaited NHL debut tonight?

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In case you missed it, yesterday afternoon the Toronto Maple Leafs officially recalled forward Andreas Johnsson from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Leafs fans have been calling for a Johnsson call up for awhile and there are some analysts who believe the 23 year old Swedish winger could be a potential replacement for pending unrestricted free-agent James van Riemsdyk, if JVR elects to leave the team this upcoming offseason. Overhyped? Maybe, but the smooth skating Johnsson does have an impressive AHL pedigree. In 54 games for the Marlies this season, Johnsson has an outstanding 26 goals and 54 points, good enough for the team lead.

“Over the last 2 years Andreas Johnsson is now tied for the AHL lead in goals and assists, and holds the lead in points among all U24 players.”

He’s an intriguing prospect in the Leafs’ pipeline and represents a MAJOR draft score for former Leafs general manager Dave Nonis. Johnsson was selected in the seventh round (202nd overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, chosen behind players like Frederik Gauthier, Carter Vergaeghe, Fabrice Herzog and Antoine Bibeau.

Sounds great, but will the big Swede be in the lineup tonight when the Leafs take on the Dallas Stars? You bet.

In fact, the rookie may get an even longer audition if things go well against the Stars tonight:

Injury Report: Zaitsev out again?

Ask any Toronto Maple Leafs fan what the biggest weakness is on the team’s roster and you’ll invariably get one answer: defence. The Leafs boast a dynamic and deep offense with marquee players like Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri carrying most of the load. Then there’s support from depth players like Tyler Bozak, Patrick Marleau, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown. In net, the Leafs have one of the league’s premier goaltenders in Frederik Anderson, even if he’s been slowed down a bit due to fatigue. 

On defence though, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Sure Morgan Rielly is an absolute stud and Jake Gardiner can have spurts of good play (sometimes followed by boneheaded giveaways though…), but the Leafs lack a true #1 or even #2 defenceman. Some fans believe that sophomore Nikita Zaitsev could emerge as the team’s top defender, even if he plays a more “under the radar” game than Rielly and Gardiner.

The 25-year-old Russian has just four goals and 12 points in 51 games this season, following a 36 point rookie season from a season ago. This season Zaitsev has been limited to just 51 games mostly due to injury and, if nothing else, Leafs fans have been given a glimpse into what the team could look like without Zaitsev in the lineup and… it’s not pretty. Zaitsev, who usually partners with the more offensive minded Gardiner, does an excellent job of clearing the front of the net and effectively acts as a release valve whenever his defensive partners gets into trouble. In short, he’s a modern day defensive defenceman. 

But, since his return from a foot injury last month Zaitsev just hasn’t been the same. In fact, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said as much himself yesterday afternoon.

Ah… that explains a bit. If Zaitsev has been playing with the flu, it makes sense that he wouldn’t exactly be at his best.

No word yet on just how long Zaitsev will be out of the lineup, and whether or not he'll play tonight against the Stars. After that the Leafs travel to Buffalo to take on the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday then they host the Montreal Canadiens at the ACC on Saturday night.