To say the 1998-99 season has been a dramatic turnaround for the Toronto Maple Leafs would be vastly understated. The team has finished out of the playoffs since the 1995-96 season. With nine regular season games to go and a playoff run awaiting them, the team has already shattered the last two years’ performance in wins, points and goals scored. They have transformed from the league’s third lowest goal-scoring club in 97-98 to leading the league in scoring this year. The Toronto Maple Leafs may not yet be on the brink of bringing home the Stanley Cup, but they have taken several quantum leaps in the right direction.
There are several reasons for the dramatic turnaround. First, the coaching staff has recognized the team’s strength, both individually and collectively and have turned loose a fast, top-notch skating team with the ability to put the puck in the net. Credit Leafs’ GM, Ken Dryden and associate GM, Mike Smith for hiring head coach, Pat Quinn and credit Quinn for pushing the right buttons. Secondly, the Leafs acquired several free agents, namely goaltender, Curtis Joseph, winger, Steve Thomas and winger, Garry Valk who have contributed mightily to the team’s fortunes and turnaround in 98-99. Thirdly, the Leafs needed the young players on the squad to make a leap forward in their play and productivity. That has certainly happened almost across the board. Young players like Steve Sullivan, Sergei Berezin, Alyn McCauley (when healthy), Daniil Markov, Tomas Kaberle (when in the lineup), Todd Warriner, Mike Johnson, Fredrik Modin, etc. have stepped up their play several notches and become NHL regulars.
It is the Leafs’ morning skate in Greensboro, North Carolina, eight hours before the Leafs will face the Carolina Hurricanes in an important, late-season game. The mood is serious, but light as they take to the ice, the defensemen with assistant coach Rick Ley, the forwards with assistant coach Alpo Suhonen. There is no hitting, but lots of skating and shooting on the net. Glenn Healy works for a long-time with the forwards taking point-blank shots. After 30 minutes the coaches leave the ice and the players begin to filter off to the dressing room. Two young Leafs’ forwards are amongst the last to leave the ice. They have been working overtime on their shots, their release, their puck control. It is impressive to see that type of work ethic exhibited by Leafs’ right-winger, Mike Johnson and left-winger, Fredrik Modin.
Johnson was a late-bloomer of sorts, playing basketball as much as hockey as a youth growing up in the Toronto area. “Wayne Gretzky was the player everyone wanted to be when we played road hockey”, states Johnson. Undrafted by the NHL, he attended Bowling Green State University for four years and developed his hockey skills there. Thirty goals in 38 games in his senior year really got the NHL’s attention. The Leafs won a mini-bidding war for his services and he jumped right from the Falcons to the Maple Leafs. “After my third year at the university I went to a Team Canada evaluation camp and there were some scouts there who took notice. When I came back for my senior year my coaches made me aware there was some interest in me at the NHL level” said Johnson. “The biggest adjustment from the college game to the NHL is really the overall skill level of the players. The goalies are obviously much better here”, he said.
Mike Johnson began to make his mark in the NHL right from the start in a late 13 game stretch at the tail-end of the 1996-97. He tallied an assist in his Leafs’ debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning and scored his first goal against Pittsburgh just 4 days into his professional career. “I was obviously pretty nervous as to what I was getting into that first game, but I felt that I could skate with the players and the speed wasn’t overwhelming for me so that I thought I could be effective with the types of things that I can do as a player”, he said. He capped off that short stretch with a short-handed, game-winning goal against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche. “That was the highlight of my short, little, first year stint”, states Johnson, “That was a fun game and the first time I was really able to contribute to the team in a meaningful way.”
One thing became apparent in that first year which has carried through to the present. Mike Johnson is one, tough customer. He goes to the net and into high traffic areas fearlessly and at times has had his hat handed to him, only to get right back up and take the next shift with no change in his play. The current 98-99 season has even seen Mike give it back a bit more as he has upped his physical play. Ask Kenny Jonsson of the Islanders after Mike leveled him at mid-ice in a late season game this year.
Mike Johnson went into training camp before the 97-98 season in search of a regular NHL job and he earned it right from the start. He spent a good part of that season on the first line with Mats Sundin and also chasing the Calder trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. A late season scoring slump maybe cost him a chance at winning the trophy, but he still made the NHL’s all-rookie team and tied for the rookie lead in scoring with 15 goals and 32 assists in 82 Leafs’ games. Mike also began to see a lot of time on the Leafs’ penalty-killing unit teamed with Alyn McCauley as his defensive skills developed nicely as well. He even caught and stopped Pavel Bure, then with Vancouver, on a breakaway late in that 97-98 season preventing him from getting a good shot on goal.
He went into the 98-99 season as an established NHL player and he worked hard during the off-season to take his game to a higher level. “The Leafs’ trainers have a set workout for us during the off-season to improve our strength and conditioning. The NHL is a long-season and some time is needed to rest your body and give yourself a mental break as well”, he said. “In August, I go to hockey camp for a couple of weeks as a participant to begin to work on my skills for the upcoming season.” A preseason that was sparkling for the Leafs was equally impressive for Johnson highlighted by a hat-trick against Edmonton.
As most of the Leafs did, Mike benefitted from the upbeat, fast-tempo, offensive-paced system brought in by new head coach, Pat Quinn, and he became part of the “MAD” line teamed with center Alyn McCauley and left-winger, Derek King. For many nights, with Mats Sundin’s line drawing heavy checking, the “MAD” line was the Leafs most impressive offensively during the regular season. Johnson reached the all-star break with 16 goals in 46 games or one more than all of his rookie season. A two goal, three point night earned him the #1 star on January 9th in a 6-3 Leafs’ win over Boston. But, as luck would have it, the chemistry of that line was disrupted as Alyn McCauley went down twice, first with a sprained knee and secondly with a concussion. Johnson and Derek King have had to adjust their games somewhat to centers, Todd Warriner and Steve Sullivan. “You do have to adjust your game somewhat to a different center as each player has their own tendencies as to things that they like to do and places where they like to get the puck”, states Johnson. He has adjusted quite well, thank you very much. As the regular season winds down, Mike has scored 20 goals, with 21 assists in 72 games. In a league which has seen over 700 players dress this year, Johnson is one of only 64 who have 20 or more goals scored.
Mike Johnson has the tools and the toolbox to go along with it. He has the size, the speed and skating ability. He has the shot and a playmaker’s instincts as well. “You are the man!!”, Steve Sullivan shouts out as Johnson hits him with a perfect, cross-ice feed for a beautiful goal against New Jersey in a 3-1 Leafs win in mid-March. His hockey instincts are superb as is his defensive play. He is relentless in traffic and has added that physical element to his play as well. He has the willingness to work on his game and the enthusiasm and love for the sport that will allow him to raise his game to a higher level in the future. His weakness? “Consistency is the thing I want to improve upon. There are games when I feel I am relatively effective in what I want to accomplish, and it is keeping your game close to that level for 82 games that is difficult. Keeping games when you’re down, which everyone goes through, to one or two instead of four or five is something to really work on”, says Johnson.
Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger, Fredrik Modin hails from Sweden and even though that is thousands of miles from Canada, he shares a similar “hockey heritage” with Mike Johnson. “My older brother played hockey and about the age of 4, my dad took me skating a couple of times a week. I started playing hockey and my love for the game just started from there”, said Fredrik. “Growing up, you of course see the players make their moves and you want to be like them. Kent Nilsson and Tomas Sandstrom were players I liked when I was a kid”, he said.
Fredrik played 3 years with Sundsvall and 2 years with Brynas in the Swedish leagues before coming to Toronto in 1996-97, bypassing North American minor leagues. “The biggest adjustment to the North American game is the smaller rinks and a more physical game”, states Modin. At 6-3, 220 lbs., it didn’t take him long to fit into the NHL style. The Leafs, at the urging of then chief European scout, Anders Hedberg, traded a 1995 2nd round pick to the New York Islanders for the 3rd round selection used to pick Fredrik in the 1994 NHL entry draft. “Anders Hedberg saw me play during the winter of 93-94 and stated that the Leafs were possibly interested in me, but I had met with scouts from other NHL teams as well”, said Freddie. Give Hedberg a lot of credit for seeing the potential in Modin.
Fredrik began his NHL career in 96-97 playing sparingly as mostly a 4th liner and scored 6 goals, 7 assists in 76 games. He missed all of training camp that season after suffering a shoulder separation in the team’s first preseason workout on a hit by Jeff Ware. He started slowly in 97-98, as he was a healthy scratch in 4 of the team’s first 5 games and ran into some bad luck as he had 4 goals called back by either in the crease rules or a high stick call. He became really hot after the midway point of the season and had a stretch of 8 goals in 6 games. “That hot streak showed me that I can score some goals at this level”, Fredrik said. He finished the season with 16 goals, 16 assists in 74 games and really began to emerge as a power forward. He played for his home country, Sweden, along with Mats Sundin, in the 1998 World Championships, and played well on a line with Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg until suffering an eye injury.
The 1998-99 season sees him being given the chance to develop into a #1 line winger, a power forward in the John Leclair mode, a sniper on the top-scoring line. He was injured in training camp with a pulled hamstring which limited his preseason time and his timing on that line with Mats Sundin and Steve Thomas. A lot of credit needs to go to coach Pat Quinn, who maintained confidence in the young Swedish winger. Except for a brief move to the #3 line, Quinn has kept Fredrik on Mats’ wing all season and is now beginning to give Modin a little time on the powerplay. “I’d like to improve all of my skills to the point where I can play in more situations other than just 5-on-5 hockey. I’d love to get more time on the powerplay”, said Fredrik. With his size and strength he would be a formidable player planted in front of opposing goalies for screens and deflections. His improved “fine-touch” skills will help him to be a better finisher in front on tip-ins and rebounds.
In his first game back following a shoulder-seperation, courtesy of Chris Chelios, Fredrik took a nice feed from Sundin and “feathered” a shot off a New Jersey defenseman and past Martin Brodeur for a “touch” goal. Earlier in the season, against Detroit, he took a deflected feed off of Mats Sundin in the slot, took the time to kick the puck from backhand to forehand, and roof it past netminder, Chris Osgood. He is becoming a little more, “John Leclair-like” and less “Sergio Momesso-like” with every game.
Among Fredrik’s assets are his size at 6-3, 220. Fredrik uses that size to finish his checks. With the current rules against interference and obstruction, he uses his size and physical presence in obtaining the puck along the boards, but also to maintain possession of the puck when he is receiving defensive pressure. “My role on Mats’ line is to take the body along the boards and work the puck free. If we are cycling the puck, I can help to create more room for Mats and Steve”, he states. He is using his stick more, rather than always using the body to fight for the puck, but Fredrik battles well along the wall. He is improving in his ability to fend off defensive pressure with his body, while keeping the puck protected out away from his body as well and still maintaining his composure to make the play to get off the pass or the shot. In recent games, Fredrik has shown an increased tendency to make the good pass to set up a teammate for a scoring chance. He made a beautiful play midway through the season against Pittsburgh as he skated with the puck down through the left circle and fed a backhand pass between the skates of a defenseman to Mats Sundin for a goal. His “instincts” to read the play are improving.
As Steve Thomas and Mats Sundin go to the net often and well also, Fredrik is learning the defensive end of the game as well. When the play calls for it, he is turning back up ice to pick up his defensive assignments much better as the season has progressed.
The most obvious asset of Fredrik’s is his booming shot, which has been registered at over 100 mph. His difficulty has been in harnessing the power of that shot as his accuracy waxes and wanes a bit. A booming slapshot off the post and into the net against Carolina Hurricanes’ goalie, Trevor Kidd, on March 26th, exhibits what happens when Freddie’s accuracy is right on. Kidd had no chance against his blast from the high slot. Fredrik is also going to the net and playing in traffic better as well. On this same night against Carolina, Fredrik bursts between the circles while being dragged down from behind, takes a feed from the corner from Mats Sundin and puts it by Kidd for a spectacular goal.
Fredrik missed 15 games during the 98-99 season due to the aforementioned shoulder seperation, but still has potted 16 goals and has 12 assists in 58 games. He is tied for the team lead in shooting percentage among regulars at 16.8%. As he earns more powerplay time and improves his shooting accuracy, his goal-scoring will rise nicely in the future. With all of the size and strength and skill comes a more-than-willing worker and his love for the game is obvious and infectious. “Fredrik doesn’t even know how good he can be”, says Mats Sundin.
A certain Leafs right-winger, Mike Johnson, reminds some of a young Lanny McDonald. Compare the 15 and 20+ goals scored by Johnson in his first two seasons to Lanny’s 14 and 17 goals scored in his first two NHL years and your eyebrows just might rise a little. Compare a young Leafs’ left-winger, Fredrik Modin’s goals scored totals of 6, 16 and 16+ to John Leclair’s totals of 8, 19 and 19 in his first 3 years and your eyebrows just might rise again. They have a long-way to go in their NHL careers before a fair comparison can truly be made, but Mike Johnson and Fredrik Modin have transformed themselves from NHL prospects to NHL regulars in a few short years.
“I hope in five years to be healthy and still playing the game I love”, says a Fredrik Modin with that broad smile. “I’d like to see myself with my name on the Stanley Cup”, says Johnson. “That’s every player’s goal, but to make a playoff run like that in a town like Toronto where it means so much, and also where I’m from, would mean so very much more”, he adds. Leafs’ fans everywhere hope the wishes of these two, fine, young, Toronto players come true, and soon, very soon.
Special thanks to Pat Park: Manager of Media Relations of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Anthony Alfred, Media Relations Assistant of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Sources: Toronto Maple Leafs Official Media Guide The Toronto Star