BUFFALO – Sabres defenseman Ryan Johnson hadn’t experienced a week of hockey so jam-packed since his days of playing four games in two days at youth tournaments.
Last week, Johnson, 22, played four of the Sabres’ five preseason games, including three in a dizzying four-day stretch.
“I feel like I have not done that before in a long time,” the rookie said with a laugh following Monday’s practice at KeyBank Center. “… I like actually playing games closer together versus playing two then you got to wait. A week is a long time.”
Johnson just spent four years playing a lighter, weekend-heavy college schedule at Minnesota. While the grind of the pros is new, the Sabres’ top defense prospect has handled it well, earning a look during training camp.
In the coming days, he will likely be assigned to the Rochester Americans. The Sabres have a stacked blue line and, right now, there’s no room for him.
But Johnson, the 31st overall in pick in 2019, has sent a strong message he will be returning to Buffalo soon, perhaps as a recall this season. He has quickly adapted to his new environment, showcasing maturity and poise playing a demanding position.
Sabres coach Don Granato said Johnson began rookie camp last month “with a very assertive leadership persona to him.”
“Then coming into main camp, his confidence carried right over,” he said. “As a result, we’re seeing a pretty talented kid play very well.”
Granato said Johnson, a youngster he called “very intelligent,” has shown a willingness to do whatever he needs. For example, he has quickly acclimated to an aggressive system and how defensemen are expected to play as a pair.
“He’s not coming in here trying to prove himself,” Granato said. “Most guys, you think about power play, they try to prove how skilled they are. He hasn’t done that at all. He’s come in and try to figure out, ‘OK, what’s expected and how do I make an impression that the organization wants? What area do they want me to make an impression in?’
“Not many players come in here with that level of maturity. So he was able to target right away, with clarity, how he could move up our depth chart, and I would say this camp he has done well in that regard.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Johnson said if you’re playing for approval, you start “to do things you wouldn’t do.”
“Just play like you belong is a big thing that goes into my mind when I play,” he said.
Clearly, the Sabres’ style fits Johnson’s talents. He’s a terrific skater who has “a lot of confidence with the puck,” said Jacob Bryson, his defense partner during the preseason. The team wants its defensemen killing plays, so they’re usually moving forward into the play.
“I love how the system it’s just like the D aren’t really skating backwards that much, and that was something I kind of had to learn at the start,” Johnson said. “Coach (Marty) Wilford was very adamant that like let’s try to shut down plays and Don the same thing, let’s be focused and aggressive and take away their time and space. I felt like when I was doing that it worked out.”
Johnson’s path to the NHL will likely be as a more defensive presence. During the Prospects Challenge last month, Amerks coach Seth Appert said Johnson possesses the talent to run a power play in a rookie tournament or at the AHL level.
However, Sabres defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power have entrenched themselves on the power play.
“There’s guys who are already in that position, so I’m just going to do whatever the coach says and whatever the coach wants,” Johnson said.
The Sabres’ last regime drafted Johnson with the pick the St. Louis Blues included in the Ryan O’Reilly trade. If he had waited a little longer, Johnson could’ve become a free agent.
But after the California native signed his two-year, entry-level contract in May, he said he felt something special about the team and its culture.
In his short time in Buffalo, he has already developed relationships.
“It just makes me excited for the future with building those relationships,” he said.
Granato began his media availability Monday by sending the team’s condolences to the family of Calgary Flames assistant general manager Chris Snow, who died at 42 on Saturday after battling ALS for more than four years.
Snow began his career as a sportswriter, covering the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Boston Red Sox for the Boston Globe. He left the baseball beat to move into the Wild’s front office.
“Just the stories I’ve read and the things I’ve heard in the last couple of day have been amazing,” Granato said.
Defensemen Joseph Cecconi and Jeremy Davies cleared waivers Monday and have joined the Amerks.