BUFFALO – Ryan Johnson needed barely eight minutes of ice time to convince the Sabres he deserved a bigger role. So, fresh off his impressive NHL debut, they awarded the defenseman duty alongside Rasmus Dahlin.
In limited action Saturday in Toronto, Johnson, 22, had quickly showcased maturity and poise that belied his neophyte status. His ability to acclimate in a hostile environment against a strong Maple Leafs team impressed the Sabres.
Still, despite giving Johnson a plum assignment for Tuesday’s game, the Sabres wanted to be careful. He would be facing the Carolina Hurricanes, an Eastern Conference heavyweight, in PNC Arena, one of the NHL’s toughest rinks to play in.
“It’s a pretty intense team you play, veteran team, experienced team in a really chaotic building, loud building,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Wednesday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “So we went into the game gauging, trying to figure out where he would be.”
Johnson would be with Dahlin throughout the night, skating 19 minutes, 26 seconds in the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime loss. Granato had the duo on the ice at the end of regulation.
“He was awesome, to the point that he finished the game with Dahlin, and I think Dahlin enjoyed having him as a partner,” Granato said.
Dahlin, 23, gushed when asked about Johnson, saying, “I love his game.”
“He’s so decisive and he’s so shifty with the puck,” he said. “Defensively, he takes a lot of responsibility. He’s got the whole package. He’s making quick decisions out there. Plays around him get better and he makes everyone around him have a lot of time with the puck because he makes the right plays.”
Johnson, the 31st overall pick in 2019, couldn’t stop smiling as he talked about the opportunity he earned Tuesday.
“It was so much fun,” he said. “Honestly, just like such a great experience. I was trying to enjoy it. I wasn’t used to that much ice time. But it was a good time.”
Johnson played 8 minutes, 20 seconds Saturday as the Sabres utilized seven defensemen. His performance against Carolina could mean the Sabres have a good problem on the horizon.
Yes, the sample size is extremely small, but what if Johnson keeps playing well? What if the Sabres keep earning points with him? So far, having beat Toronto 6-4, they’ve earned three of a possible four points.
The Sabres have entered a new phase in which they’re expected to make the playoffs. Again, it’s early, but Johnson might be one of the six defensemen who gives them the best chance to win. On Tuesday, he played ahead of Jacob Bryson.
The Sabres recalled the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Johnson on Saturday after just nine games with the Rochester Americans. They had more established defensemen to choose from, including Riley Stillman, who ended last season as a regular in Buffalo.
So what will they do when defenseman Mattias Samuelsson, who’s sidelined with a lower-body injury, is healthy?
Having played four years of college hockey at Minnesota, Johnson’s more experienced than most rookies.
“He’s not a young guy coming in, he’s not a 20-year-old coming in,” Granato said. “He’s come in with lots of hockey experience and lots of life experience. You see a maturity level that is probably better than your average or higher than your average rookie, and I think that’s allowed him to integrate really fast.”
Naturally, Dahlin, who played with Johnson for parts of Saturday’s game, has instilled confidence in the youngster. The Swede, one of the league’s most dynamic defensemen, possesses the talent to make special plays.
“So just like be ready to move and react,” said Johnson, who recorded an assist Saturday. “I think, too, he’s very helpful talking and just communicating, too.”
Johnson, while not as flashy as Dahlin, has “great athleticism,” Granato said.
“Which buys him an extra half second,” he said. “(He has) the poise to then look up ice and widen his scope to see potential pass options. And then, obviously, skill to snap and execute and skate away from trouble when he puts a guy on his back. So (he has) agility, mobility, skills. Then he’s got a real good feel for the game to keep it simple. That’s a position that, as we’ve seen young defensemen, when you don’t keep it simple, it’s a breakaway against. …
“Ryan has a very good feel of how to keep the game simple and that is a very big attribute.”