BUFFALO – Erik Johnson knows his time here could be short. The defenseman joined the Sabres on a one-year contract. At 35, he has entered perhaps the final phase of his terrific career.
Right now, the 17-year veteran might be more coveted for his experience and leadership than his skill.
Johnson’s still an asset on the ice, mind you. He averaged more than 17 minutes on it each game last season. In the first two days of training camp, he practiced beside Mattias Samuelsson, a plum assignment.
But Johnson’s arrival offers the Sabres’ young, talent-laden blue line a missing element.
“I’ve seen quite a bit in my time in the NHL,” he said following Friday’s session of camp in LECOM Harborcenter.
The defense corps lacked experience before the Sabres signed Johnson and Connor Clifton, 28, in free agency. Last season, just one defenseman, Ilya Lyubushkin, was older than 25. Only Lyubushkin had played an NHL playoff game.
Having played 920 NHL games and another 55 in the postseason, Johnson, the first overall pick in 2006, ranks as one of hockey’s most experienced defensemen. He won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2022, an achievement that gives him instant credibility.
“EJ’s the only one that’s won a Cup,” Sabres winger Alex Tuch said. “Immediately that goes into leadership.”
Johnson has quickly embraced his role as a mentor as the Sabres try to earn their first playoff berth since 2011. Of course, he has also leaned on his teammates as he begins a new adventure after spending 12 years in Colorado.
“As much as I’m asking them questions about where to go eat in town and just how things work within the organization, they’re asking me stuff about what was it like to win the Cup?” Johnson said. “What was it like to play with this guy? What was it like to go through this? And I’m more than happy to share those lessons. I take it seriously and it’s part of my responsibility.”
He added: “I’m going to try and help them and do whatever I can to help them succeed in any way possible.”
Johnson said he wants to be an “open book” for the defense and hopes his habits rub off. When younger players feel comfortable around veterans, he said, it improves the team dynamics.
“I know … how good of a pro he is and how dedicated he is to his craft,” said Sabres captain Kyle Okposo, Johnson’s childhood friend and college roommate at Minnesota. “It’s already rubbing off on our guys.”
For example, Johnson convinced defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 23, to purchase a sauna.
“He said it was good for recovery, so I was like, yeah, sure, I’ll do it,” Dahlin said. “Whatever he says.”
Johnson, who learned about the benefits of saunas from Paul Kariya as a youngster with the St. Louis Blues, said he has already had one built in his new home.
“To take the next step, sometimes you have to see things that you haven’t seen before, which I’ve seen a lot, and I think I can lend that experience,” Johnson said. “Part of that is off the ice and making sure you’re ready to go on a day-to-day basis physically, mentally, emotionally, all of that. I’m a sounding board for them and I’ve just been trying to practice what I preach, really.”
In their short time together, Dahlin, the first overall selection in 2018, has watched Johnson closely and soaked up whatever he can.
“The first thing is that he loves to be at the rink,” he said. “He loves to hang out with the guys in the locker room. He’s such a great guy. I mean, his mood is always, always up. … He’s always on the bike after practice. So, yeah, he’s such a professional, and I think I can learn some stuff from him.”
Johnson’s decision to choose the Sabres shortly after free agency opened July 1 illustrates how the perception of the franchise has changed over the past year or two.
“Whether I’m here this year, another year or whatever, I just wanted to be a part of it because I think they can do something special and I can help them be a part of it,” he said.
Yes, the Sabres have improved in the standings, moving to within one win of a playoff berth late season. But opposing players hear about and see the tight-knit culture they’ve built.
“It’s a team that’s knocking on the door and you don’t get free agency signings in the first 15 minutes of free agency if you’re not a team that’s on the rise,” Johnson said. “That’s what happened with myself and Connor. I think guys see that and want to be here and I think that’s the culture the guys have built over the last few years.
“When you just look at the talent up and down the lineup, this team is set up for success for many, many years. So it was exciting from my standpoint to come here and be part of it. … The window for them to contend is open for a long time.”
Winning a Cup with Okposo would make another championship even sweeter.
“He’s a great dude,” Johnson said. “I’m just happy to be able to play with him again. Hopefully it can come full circle and we can win a Cup together. That would be super cool.”
Notes: Okposo missed Friday’s session to speak at the “Unstoppable Africa” conference in New York. … The Sabres will scrimmage at noon today at KeyBank Center. … The Sabres open the preseason on the road Sunday afternoon against the Washington Capitals.
We discuss the Week 2 win, Josh Allen’s superb effort, the Washington game, Sabres training camp, roster battles and more in our third episode:https://t.co/0VZhrdfaRv
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) September 20, 2023