BUFFALO – After defenseman Erik Johnson learned the Colorado Avalanche wouldn’t be re-signing him, he said five or six teams emerged as suitors in free agency.
The Sabres, a team he said reminds him of the Avalanche not long ago, quickly moved to the top of his list.
Johnson, 35, called some old teammates and bounced the interested clubs off them.
“All of them really said Buffalo’s a team on the rise,” said Johnson, who signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract with the Sabres shortly after the market opened Saturday. “That’s not a secret anymore. People know that the Sabres are coming. Whether it’s this year, next year – I don’t know how soon it’s going to be – I just feel it’s a team that’s going to contend for a long time.”
It’s a team the veteran said his gut told him he should choose.
“They have a great nucleus of young talent and I think they’re knocking at the door,” Johnson said on a Zoom call Sunday. “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.”
The Sabres targeted their defense corps as an area they needed to improve, and Johnson and Connor Clifton, 28, should help. Clifton, a five-year veteran, inked a three-year deal.
The additions offer the Sabres much-needed experience and depth. Last season, Ilya Lyubushkin, 29, was their oldest defenseman. None of the defenders they used had played more than five seasons.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Johnson won the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2022. He has played 920 games over 16 seasons, the last 13 of which he spent in Colorado, a place he had hoped to return.
On the Sabres, only captain Kyle Okposo, his childhood friend and college roommate at Minnesota, has more experience (984 games).
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said at different points last year, he reflected back on his playing days and the veterans who surrounded young players.
With the Carolina Hurricanes, a young Eric Staal sat between Rod Brind’Amour and Ron Francis in the dressing room. During Adams’ final season as a player with the Chicago Blackhawks, he roomed with a rookie named Patrick Kane.
Adams wondered if he was doing enough to help his young talent “with good hockey players and just the right kind of people.”
“You know how strongly I feel about Zemgus (Girgensons) and Kyle,” he said Sunday prior to the start of development camp in LECOM Harborcenter. “But have we done enough? I felt strongly that we needed to do a little more there. Erik Johnson fit that perfectly. I just think it’s an important piece.
“Sometimes even, however long Erik is with us, it can go for so many more years after just because these young players won’t forget those lessons.”
Incredibly, Johnson, a right shot, is one of three first overall picks on Buffalo’s blue line. The St. Louis Blues drafted him No. 1 in 2006. The Sabres also have Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.
Right now, the Sabres have nine defensemen on one-way contracts for next season, something Adams called a “good problem.” A move, of course, could be made.
Adams, however, said he’s willing to keep them all.
“Would we be open to doing something, especially in the back end?” he said. “For sure. But the league is well aware of who we have, and what we will listen to and not listen to. So we’ll see how it goes. But ultimately if you’re asking will we go into camp with nine? Absolutely. I’m totally comfortable with that.
“And I like competition, too. I think having that internal competition for spots and playing time, it’s just going to push everything.”