Ryan Johnson recently finished college. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres and city helped Ryan Johnson choose Buffalo: ‘Right in my heart’

ROCHESTER – Ryan Johnson acknowledged that, yes, free agency was tempting. As the defense prospect agonized over whether to sign with the Buffalo Sabres and sought the advice of others, he heard where he might fit well elsewhere.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, you get to choose where you want to go?’” Johnson said Monday after skating with the Americans for the first time.

While the open market intrigued Johnson, he knew rejecting the Sabres would be risky. Since being drafted 31st overall in 2019, he has grown comfortable in the organization, even as he spent four years playing college hockey at Minnesota. He visited for development camps and worked with the development staff.

Johnson, 21, felt he belonged with Buffalo.

“I just felt it was right in my heart with coming to the Sabres,” said Johnson, whose two-year, entry-level contract was announced Saturday.

So, why did Johnson, who could’ve become a free agent in August, ultimately choose the Sabres? The team and city helped convince him.

“There’s something special here with the staff and the culture this team has,” said Johnson, who was drafted by the team’s previous regime. “It’s definitely trending on the upward, it’s noticeable. And also it’s cool even what’s happened in the city. Buffalo, I know it’s a major sports city and it’s cool seeing that they rallied behind Damar Hamlin, seeing the support of all the fan base.

“I definitely want to be a part of something like that where’s it’s bigger than the game.”

Right now, the 6-foot, 170-pound Johnson is one of five extra defensemen on Rochester’s Calder Cup Playoffs roster. He did not play Monday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Hershey Bears at Blue Cross Arena.

After signing his contract, he arrived in town late Sunday night and was on the ice with Amerks’ extras at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Johnson hasn’t played since Minnesota lost to Quinnipiac on April 8 in the national championship game. He figured he would leave school right away following the college season but is grateful for the extra time.

In addition to considering his future over the past seven weeks – “I felt a lot of pressure on myself,” he said of his decision – he completed his degree and graduated earlier this month.

Amerks coach Seth Appert said Johnson could eventually play. Sabres prospect Matt Savoie, the ninth overall pick in 2022, joined the team last week after his junior season ended and played Games 2 and 3. Savoie, a natural center who has been playing left wing, sat out Monday’s contest.

“You’re here to soak up the experience, to learn, to see how good this level is but also to try to fight for ice time and be ready for ice time if it comes,” Appert said.

Johnson fits the aggressive, up-tempo style the Sabres and Amerks like to showcase. Appert said defensemen who possess his skating ability “are rare commodities.”

“A defenseman that has pretty good size, a good defender and is as mobile as he is, those guys are hard to find,” he said. “And that’s why he was drafted as high as he was drafted, because there’s not a ton of over 6-foot, very, very mobile defensemen that also defend extremely hard.”

Sabres development coach Nathan Paetsch, who has worked closely with Johnson over the past two years, said the youngster’s talents fit the modern game.

“Just such a strong skater,” said Paetsch, who ran Monday’s session. “The game has changed to puck-moving, skating defensemen who can close plays really fast. And you’ll see he’s a very elite skater and that’s the strength of his game.”

Johnson’s contract will kick in next season. If he elected for free agency, the Sabres would’ve received a second-round pick as compensation.

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