Are Johnson’s Nomadic Days Over?

On November 16, 2003, the Calgary Flames acquired 27-year-old Finnish netminder Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks. It was a marriage of convenience for all involved. The Sharks got a draft pick in exchange for their third-string goaltender – playing behind Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov – while the Flames got a goaltender to help them through some injuries and performance issues from their tandem of Roman Turek and Jamie McLennan. The move turned out to be one of the savviest of Darryl Sutter’s managerial career.

This summer’s signing of Chad Johnson by the Flames may similarly define Brad Treliving’s tenure in Calgary.

Hockey’s Nomadic Goalie

Johnson was originally drafted in 2006 by the Pittsburgh Penguins as a 20-year-old college goalie. With their system filling up with netminders during his collegiate stint with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, he was traded to the New York Rangers at the 2009 NHL Draft for a pick and signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers.

He spent three seasons in the Rangers organization but was not retained following the third season, as despite his strengths at the American Hockey League level the Rangers had young Cam Talbot waiting in the wings. Thus began one of the most unique journeys of any goaltender in NHL history – and a journey perhaps only fully appreciated by legendary NHL journeyman Mike Sillinger – as Johnson played for five different organizations in five seasons.

  • He signed with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2012-13, where he spent the majority of the time with their AHL club. He performed well but, like in New York, the club had youngsters Mark Visentin and Louie Domingue waiting in the wings and he wasn’t retained. (Consequently: Treliving was the Coyotes assistant GM at the time.)
  • He signed with the Boston Bruins in 2013-14, where he was Tuukka Rask’s back-up and performed well. However, his signing seemed to be aimed to give the team’s youngsters a year to develop and he was not retained.
  • He signed with the New York Islanders in 2014-15, where he was Jaroslav Halak’s back-up and performed well. He was traded to Buffalo at the trade deadline in a swap for Michel Neuvirth, who was perceived to be an upgrade over Johnson for the playoff-bound Isles.
  • He was retained by the Sabres to back up Robin Lehner, and ended up playing the vast majority of the 2015-16 games for Buffalo after Lehner was injured early in the season. He performed well, but the club brought in Anders Nilsson as a perceived upgrade over Johnson.

Here’s Johnson’s professional career in a nutshell: he performed well, but the organizations he was in always felt they had other options for his role that they liked better – whether it be an internal prospect or somebody with more pedigree brought in from the outside.

Arriving in Calgary at 3o years of age, Johnson’s a bit further into his professional career than Kiprusoff was when he became a Flame. However, Johnson’s nomadic existence somewhat obscures an important figure: his save percentage is better than Kiprusoff’s was when he was declared Calgary’s top goalie, which makes him somewhat overqualified for being a back-up netminder. (And that holds true whether you compare Johnson’s pre-Calgary numbers to Kiprusoff’s numbers when he arrived or after his first season as a Flame.)

  • Johnson arrived in Calgary with 101 NHL games and a .925 even strength save percentage.
  • Kiprusoff arrived in Calgary with 47 NHL games and a .900 even strength save percentage.
    • Counting his first season in Calgary, when he set the modern-day record for lowest goals against average, Kiprusoff had 85 games and a .919 even strength save percentage.

Coming Home

When Johnson was unveiled as a free agent signing by the Flames on July 1, 2016, the unspoken message was this: He’s going to be a really solid back-up for Brian Elliott, but that’s all. For his part, Johnson seemed excited to come back to his hometown – he was born in Saskatoon but raised in Calgary – and get a chance to play. All he seemed to want was a chance, particularly after changing his address four times in the previous four seasons.

With Elliott struggling early in the season, Johnson originally was given a chance to play likely in an effort to help Elliott reset. However, Johnson kept playing well and winning games. Perhaps some of it was a lack of expectations given he was brought in to be the back-up. Or it could be that he’s merely living up to expectations; his even strength save percentage over the five seasons prior to his arrival in Calgary was in the general vicinity of Corey Crawford, Jonathan Quick and Devan Dubnyk. He might have played less often, but Johnson has been a strong performer.

Through his first 14 appearances in 2016-17, Johnson posted a .936 even strength save percentage. It’s above his usual level, but not crazily so.

Putting Down Roots?

Unlike Johnson’s previous stops in the NHL, the Flames don’t have an established long-term start; neither he or Elliott have contracts beyond this season. While Calgary does have a goaltender of the future in AHLer Jon Gillies, he’s in the midst of his first full pro season and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready to jump to the NHL next season. With the expansion draft looming in June, the Flames will need to sign a goaltender for their protection list. When the season began, the thought process was that given his experience and talent level, of course it was going to be Elliott that was retained.

A third of the way through the schedule, Johnson’s performance has put him very much in the running for continued employment in Calgary. If he can maintain it, his nomadic days may be behind him.