The Buffalo Sabres today made three moves in the opening hour of free agency, signing right-shot defensemen Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton and re-signing center Tyson Jost.
General manager Kevyn Adams said leading up to free agency he wanted to add to his blue line this offseason, and in Johnson and Clifton he addressed the Sabres’ most glaring need.
Johnson, 35, signed a $3.25 million contract. Meanwhile, Clifton, 28, inked a three-year deal with an average annual value of $3.33 million.
The signings offer the Sabres much-needed experience and depth on their back end. Last season, Ilya Lyubushkin, 29, was their oldest defenseman. None of the defenders they used last season had played more than five seasons.
Johnson, the first overall pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, has played 920 NHL games over 16 seasons and won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2022. Clifton has spent the last five years with the Boston Bruins.
The Sabres now have nine defensemen under one-way contracts for the upcoming season, meaning they will likely have to shed one or two in the near future.
Still, the depth is often needed. Early last season, injuries forced the Sabres to recall defensemen from the minors and play them significant minutes.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Johnson has compiled 88 goals, 337 points, 514 penalty minutes and a plus-3 rating in his career. He registered zero goals, eight points, 12 penalty minutes and a plus-8 rating in 63 games last season. He still earned notable ice time, averaging 17 minutes, 15 seconds a contest.
Johnson played one season of college hockey at Minnesota before turning pro. The Blues traded Johnson, a Minnesota native, to the Avalanche during the 2010-11 season.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Clifton has recorded 10 goals, 43 points, 157 penalty minutes and a plus-37 rating in 232 games over his five-year career. He knows Sabres coach Don Granato well, having played for him at the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Clifton enjoyed a career-best season in 2022-23, compiling five goals, 23 points, 60 penalty minutes and a plus-23 rating in 78 games during the Bruins’ record-setting 116-point season. He averaged 17 minutes, 51 seconds of ice time an outing.
The Arizona Coyotes drafted Clifton, a New Jersey native, in the fifth round in 2013, 133rd overall. He played four seasons at Quinnipiac before turning pro.
Meanwhile, Jost, 25, expressed a desire to return to the Sabres, who claimed him on waivers from the Minnesota Wild in November.
The Sabres did not give Jost a qualifying offer Friday as a restricted free agent, which allowed them to re-sign him to a one-year, $2 million deal – $250,000 less than he made last season.
The 5-foot-11, 187-pound Jost recorded seven goals, 25 points, 33 penalty minutes and a minus-13 rating in 71 total games last season.
Update: On a Zoom call Sunday morning, Johnson said “it was every intention of mine to stay with Colorado.”
“They wanted to make a change and that was fine,” he said. “I understood their thought process. While I would’ve liked to have stayed, I totally understood. Once I found out that Colorado wasn’t going to be an option, I quickly had my agent Pat get in touch with teams yesterday. We had about five or six options and Buffalo was right at the top of the list for me.
“Playing against them the last few years, they remind me of Colorado a few years prior when we were building it. They have a great nucleus of young talent and I think they’re knocking at the door. It was a real appealing spot to me to go there and help in any way I can. I think it’s a team that’s really close. I was excited that they were really interested. They were definitely the most aggressive team. I could just tell they really wanted me and that was why I ended up signing here.”
Clifton said the Sabres are “young” and “dynamic.”
“They’re fun to watch,” he said. “Honestly, fun to play against, too. You know you’ve got a high-scoring game. You’ve got a bunch of grade-A chances you’re going to give up to them because they just play that style. And obviously, I think everyone feels it – they’ve been building something special the past couple of years, and I’m excited to be part of it.
“They obviously missed the wild card too by one point last year. They could have easily made playoffs, but they’re just getting better each year.”