All along, Chad Johnson said, returning to Buffalo was his first choice. The goalie thrived in his only season with the Sabres, becoming the team’s backbone while playing a career-high 45 games.
But when free agency opened in June, Johnson quickly learned how much his career year had impressed other NHL teams.
Johnson, 30, said he talked to six or seven suitors, including his hometown Calgary Flames.
“You talk to other teams and (learn how) highly different teams feel about you,” Johnson told the Times Herald by phone Monday. “It was a tough decision. It came down to the very end.”
The likable, soft-spoken Johnson whittled his list down to Buffalo, Calgary and another team. Ultimately, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go home.
Johnson signed a one-year, $1.7 million contract with the Flames on July 1.
“It just seemed like the right fit for me opportunity-wise, hockey, life – everything,” he said. “It was the best offer.”
Johnson’s role isn’t much different from his other five NHL stops. He’s the Flames’ new backup, although with Brian Elliott injured, he will likely make his second straight start tonight when the Sabres make their yearly visit to Calgary.
The Flames, who received wretched goaltending last season, have a strong option if they need to rely on Johnson regularly. Elliott, another newcomer, has only been a No. 1 sporadically in his career.
Johnson thrived subbing for the injured Robin Lehner last season, going 22-16-1 with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. His 44 saves in a 3-0 win over Anaheim on Dec. 17 broke the franchise record for a shutout.
From Nov. 1, Johnson’s statistics ranked among the league’s elite. In 36 appearances, his .928 save percentage ranked third among regular goalies and his 2.16 goals-against average ranked fifth. He compiled terrific numbers – 6-2-1, 2.21, .925 – after Lehner’s high ankle sprain ended his season.
“You felt like when Chad was in the net, we had a chance to win every game that he played,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma told reporters Monday in Calgary.
Clearly, the regular action in 2015-16 – he had never played more than 27 games in an NHL season – helped Johnson seize his opportunity.
“I felt comfortable,” Johnson said. “I felt on a roll. The team, we just really worked well together. I think it was a good balance. The guys trusted me, I trusted them. There was cohesiveness as a group.”
Leaving that group was difficult for Johnson, who was voted Buffalo’s unsung hero by his teammates. Following a strong second half, the Sabres’ new direction excited him.
“I think it’s such a good group of guys,” he said. “I can’t say enough about it. You know that (there’s) great potential there. It was hard to leave, but I think once I got over that line and the doors open to other teams, you see how wanted you are, I guess, out there in the market and how valuable other teams see you.”
The value of every teammate is Johnson’s lasting memory of the Sabres. Everyone, he said, had a role and knew “how valuable that they were, regardless if they were Jack Eichel, myself or (Nick) Deslauriers.”
“We all had responsibility,” Johnson said. “No one was above anybody else. There was no separation with the team, and that, to me, was what was so special about that group last year. Being a part of it, everybody was so close with each other and we needed each other to win games.”
The Sabres replaced Johnson with Anders Nilsson. Bylsma said Monday his new backup could play soon. Lehner will make his third straight start tonight.
Johnson got along well with Lehner, who dropped around 40 pounds during the summer.
“I know he lost a lot of weight,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to recognize him. I’m excited to kind of see how he looks. All the weight loss and everything, I’m happy for him. He’s a good goalie. He’s a guy that deserves to be playing a lot of games.
“I know he had a tough year last year and opened the door for me. … He’s capable of being the guy there. I know that that’s the focus of the organization.”