“I didn’t expect to be here longer than that game,” Johnson said prior to returning to the lineup for Thursday’s 9-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center. “I didn’t expect to be here at all.”
Johnson, 22, played that night seven weeks ago in Toronto, quickly impressing the Sabres in limited minutes as their seventh defenseman. Today, he’s still with them, earning semi-regular action on a crowded blue line.
Of course, the California native, the 31st overall pick in 2019, seemed destined to reach the NHL this season.
He played four years of college hockey at Minnesota, so he turned pro having already competed against men. Then he grabbed the Sabres’ attention during a long look in the preseason.
But no one expected Johnson would stick in the NHL after three weeks in the minors. He played just nine games with the Rochester Americans before the Sabres recalled him. Those might be the only appearances he makes in the AHL.
“I figured I could … not just play but make plays and thrive and be confident, too,” Johnson said of what has allowed him to stay in the big leagues. “So I think that’s definitely something I’m thankful that I’ve experienced, to be able to be given the opportunity.”
Sabres coach Don Granato acknowledged the Johnson has exceeded expectations.
“There’s no question,” he said. “You have a guy come from college and he doesn’t have any pro experience, let alone any NHL experience. You figure he’s probably going to need some time. And he proved that he was ahead of a normal pace of a player with that respect.”
The Sabres have recently been moving the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Johnson in and out of the lineup, often as their seventh defender. He had dressed for five of the last 10 games before making his 19th appearance Thursday.
They think so highly of him they waived Jacob Bryson, an established defenseman he pushed to eighth on the depth chart, earlier this week.
Granato said Johnson’s consistency and the Sabres’ ability to “pull him out a little bit” has helped the youngster stay in Buffalo.
“(We can) give him some breathing room and keep him fresh,” he said. “The grind of the league, it’s a physical grind but it’s a psychological grind, too. And he’s handled it well for a young guy. …
“There’s a level of maturity, a base level of skill, and I think not having to play every single night and being surrounded by some pretty good guys in the back end – (Rasmus) Dahlin, Samuelsson – has helped as well.”
Johnson has embraced sitting out games, using his time in the press box as an opportunity to step back and analyze the game from a different perspective.
“You definitely get a view of the game and you can see potential reads, you can watch players, you can also be, ‘Wow, this is cool. I was just playing there last night,’” he said.
Johnson skated alongside Owen Power early against the Leafs and recorded an assist. To make room for him, the Sabres scratched defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
Wingers Jeff Skinner and Jordan Greenway both returned from upper-body injuries Thursday, so the Sabres scratched center Tyson Jost and Eric Robinson.
They also scratched goalie Eric Comrie.
Sabres winger Zemgus Girgensons, out the last 14 games, skated with his teammates for the first time Thursday morning since suffering a lower-body injury Nov. 24.
Granato said the Latvian likely won’t play in Saturday’s road game against the New York Rangers, the Sabres’ final outing before their three-day Christmas break.