BUFFALO – Instead of getting a new paint job this year, goalie Chad Johnson simply dusted off the popular blue Sabres mask he sported two years ago throughout his best NHL season.
“It was one of my favorites,” Johnson said Wednesday following practice inside HarborCenter. “I had a lot of good feedback on it. … Some people wanted me to bring it back. I couldn’t come up with anything better, so I stuck with it.”
Returning to the Sabres has been easy for Johnson, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract on July 1 following a season with his hometown Calgary Flames.
“It’s definitely a weird feeling being back but comfortable in the same sense,” said Johnson, whose Sabres face the Maple Leafs tonight in Toronto, the start of a home-and-home exhibition set.
A lot has changed since Johnson left after playing a career-high 46 games in 2015-16. The Sabres have a new coach, Phil Housley, and a new front office led by general manager Jason Botterill.
Still, Johnson, 31, finds comfort in being reunited with his old goalie coach, Andrew Allen, who Housley retained, and his old partner, starter Robin Lehner.
“The familiar faces here and the success I had here, the fans, the organization … made the decision easy to come back here,” Johnson said.
He added: “It was all about having an opportunity and a bigger role.”
Johnson enjoyed a huge role early last season, when he shared time with Brian Elliott. In fact, for three weeks from November into December, Johnson morphed into the NHL’s best goalie, possibly saving Calgary’s season. In 13 games, he went 11-2 with a 1.61 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage.
Johnson turned in decent final numbers – 18-15-1, 2.59 and .910 – in 36 appearances. He eventually cooled off and Elliott won 11 straight games in the winter, snatching the No. 1 job for the playoffs.
“It was a really good year overall, consistent for the most part,” Johnson said. “I had four games that didn’t go my way, which sometimes cost me playing time. Being in a Canadian market, there’s a lot of pressure to make change there.”
While Johnson said playing in his hometown was special, having missed the playoffs with the Sabres in 2015-16, he believes he has unfinished business here.
Johnson became an unsung hero subbing for an injured Lehner, compiling arguably the best season by a Sabres goalie – 22-16-4, 2.36 and .920 – in years.
If Lehner stays healthy and performs well, Johnson might only receive 20 or 25 games this season, something Allen believes his pupil can handle. Lehner played 59 contests in 2016-17 and backup Anders Nilsson played 26 times.
“(Johnson’s) mindset doesn’t change if he’s playing three games in a row or he hasn’t played in a week or a week in a half,” Allen said. “So I think for him, that level of professionalism, that even-keeled demeanor helps him no matter the situation.”
Allen’s presence was a “big part of the reason I came back,” Johnson said.
“Having his eyes in the sky to make sure I’m on my game is important,” he said. “I think the older I get and different organizations I’ve been a part of, I know how important it is to have a good goalie coach, a guy that supports your game.”
Johnson also has Lehner’s support. Any competition between them is friendly. They quickly became friends two years ago.
“We’re both easygoing,” Lehner said of why they get along. “I think … we don’t mind each other’s success. We both want to be good. I think we’re both the type of goalie that doesn’t care about others. We go about our own business … and we’re fine with that. It’s a good relationship.”