Erik Johnson (left) and Connor Clifford joined Buffalo on Saturday. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres notes: Don Granato believes Erik Johnson will help Rasmus Dahlin, other defensemen

BUFFALO – If Sabres coach Don Granato puts Erik Johnson on the top defense pairing, he believes the veteran can help Rasmus Dahlin reset from the mental pressure he often puts on himself.

Granato said Johnson, having been a first overall pick like Dahlin, has “walked that walk.”

Of course, Granato thinks Johnson, 35, would have a similar effect on Owen Power, the No. 1 selection in 2021. And if Johnson skates with Mattias Samuelsson when the Sabres are down a man, Granato said the youngster “is going to move toward more of an elite penalty killer by virtue of sharing experience with Erik.”

Since the Sabres landed Johnson and Connor Clifton, two right-shot defensemen, shortly after free agency opened Saturday, intriguing scenarios for the upcoming season have been running through Granato’s mind.

Johnson, who signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract, will likely skate with one of the Sabres’ young left-shot defenders. Having played 920 NHL games over 16 seasons and lifted the Stanley Cup over his head as a member of the Colorado Avalanche barely a year ago, he offers valuable experience to a defense corps light on veterans.

“He’s actually had such a wide spectrum of experience through the league,” Granato said Thursday following the final session of development camp in KeyBank Center. “And … there’s no diminishing the fact he’s a hell of a player present day, and that excited me.”

The Sabres targeted their blue line as an area they needed to improve this summer and, as free agency approached, Granato studied film of defensemen who would possibly be available.

“There were two that I really wanted, and it was these two guys,” he said. “I’m very, very happy we got them.”

Granato knows Clifton, 28, well, having coached him at the U.S. National Team Development Program over a decade ago. After signing a three-year contract with a $3.333 million average annual value, he said Granato was a big reason why he picked the Sabres.

“Team-first guy that plays physical, has a physical edge,” Granato said of Clifton, who began his career with the Boston Bruins. “As a player on the other team, you know when Connor Clifton’s on the ice. You can just ask any player in the league. They will track and know when he’s on the ice, and he’s effective in many other ways as well.”

Johnson and Clifton each choosing the Sabres illustrates the progress the team has made. For years, as the Sabres sat at the bottom of the league, Buffalo wasn’t exactly a high-ranking destination for free agents.

Now, some players see something special building and want to be a part of it.

“They made a decision to become a Buffalo Sabre,” Granato said. “That is significant in this, because when you’re a UFA, you have options open to you. And I know they had other options and maybe options there was some different, more incentive for them to go somewhere else. But they valued being here. And they clearly made that decision quick to be here. So quick and decisive in their mind that this bodes well that our reputation is growing.”

Granato said Sabres winger Jack Quinn, who underwent surgery last week after tearing his Achilles tendon while training, will make the most of his time on the sideline.

“He’s gonna be watching the game from a different angle and he’ll be adding to his skill set, his talent,” he said. “He will. He’ll sit in meetings daily. He’ll have to watch from afar and pick up things that you wouldn’t pick up if you were (playing). … He’ll mature through it and I know he’s going to come back a better player by virtue of that and his age.

“But it is a bummer to not have him and it is a bummer because as a coach, you know him as a person how much he worked for it. So I feel his pain.”

Granato said the Sabres don’t need to replace Quinn, who scored 14 goals as a rookie last season, or anyone else.

“That’s just a whole mentality,” he said. “We don’t have to replace guys. We have guys who are very, very capable. And that goes with the whole theme. You can’t go into the second round of the playoffs and say, ‘We’ve lost this, we’ve got to replace it.’ We’re good enough. We go, we fill in. We can shift guys around who are talented and they’ll fill spots. So we are very confident and comfortable with our personnel.

“But you’re always, always – this is professional sports – you’re continuing looking for ways to get better and advance your guys that you have, inside or outside. That will never, ever stop.”

Bills coach Sean McDermott sat between Granato and Sabres and Bills owner Terry Pegula during Thursday’s three-on-three prospects scrimmage.

“That was a pleasant surprise,” Granato said of McDermott. “I didn’t even realize he was coming. We all know how busy that schedule is, so for him to take some time when he has some time to come over to the hockey rink, the ice rink, is pretty special, just knowing how valuable his time is, to come over here. And then any time you can sit and talk with him, converse on situations that you go through with organizations, professional sports, athletes, it was a lot of fun.”

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