It was a pick many in the hockey universe didn’t think would be made. With the myriad of needs on the Sabres’ roster, it seemed that the 31st pick of the 2019 NHL Draft would be used to bolster today’s squad. Instead, general manager Jason Botterill kept the pick and made a selection that could be a major impact on the roster in the years to come.
After travelling nearly 5500 kilometers northwest to draft Whitehorse’s Dylan Cozens, the Sabres then looked over 4000 km southwest to select Ryan Johnson of Irvine, California. While not necessarily receiving great fanfare, Johnson could be a very valuable piece to the Sabres’ future.
Johnson’s Style of Play
The son of former NHLer Craig Johnson, Johnson played the early part of his career with the Anaheim Junior Ducks AAA Bantam club. He has shown a penchant for offensive play throughout the beginning of his path to the NHL, however, his future projection became much more clear during his first season in junior with the Sioux Falls Stampede.
Putting up 25 points in 54 games, Johnson appeared to settle into a more defensive role. Despite not putting up explosive point totals, Johnson excels at playing a sound all-around game.
His greatest asset is his skating ability. Whether it be forward or backward, Johnson has the capability to close on defenders and create space for himself. His edges are excellent and with a quick turn, he can buy himself valuable time with the puck.
Standing six feet tall and weighing 170 pounds, Johnson will never be confused as a bruiser. His physical frame, like most 17-year-olds, requires further development. His path to the University of Minnesota next season will greatly contribute to his growth. While being able to benefit from playing in a premier NCAA organization, Johnson will also benefit from the NCAA schedule, focusing mostly on weekend games and weekdays in the gym.
Johnson looks to be a modern day defensive defenceman. When people think of defensive defencemen, they think of a hulking knuckle-dragger who can throw bodies around in the defensive zone. That is no longer an asset in today’s game.
Today’s forward is otherworldly fast and supremely skilled. In order to defend that effectively, you need smarts and speed to counter. Johnson has the speed but also has the confidence and stick skills to aggressively break up rushes or advance the puck out of his own zone and onto the sticks of his rushing teammates.
Johnson’s Fit with the Sabres
Johnson’s game is reminiscent of Vegas Golden Knights’ defender Nate Schmidt. In Schmidt’s only season in the USHL, he put up 37 points in 57 games, stronger than Johnson’s 25 in 54. However, both play a similarly aggressive attacking style of defence. Interestingly, Schmidt also went on to play three seasons with the University of Minnesota where he put up 74 points in 96 games, good for .77 points-per-game. Johnson may not score at that pace but should play a similar defensive game while putting up a half a point-per-game.
Johnson joins a defence core with the Sabres that is crowded, to say the least. Left-handed prospects Brycen Martin, Linus Cronholm, Brandon Hickey, Mattias Samuelsson and Jacob Bryson look to battle with Johnson for one available spot on the left side going forward. Lawrence Pilut, when healthy, is sure to be the second pairing defenceman while Rasmus Dahlin would be best served to lease an apartment on the left side of Key Bank Center ice for the foreseeable future.
At this time, Samuelsson appears to be the best fit to play that third pairing. He plays a rugged more physical brand of defence. Could Johnson surpass him on the depth chart?
He may have already done so. The upcoming season will be huge for both Samuelsson and Johnson to show the Sabres’ brass exactly what they have in both players. It will be up to Johnson to use his coaches as well as his father who is a member of the Los Angeles Kings’ Development staff. Can Johnson prove the Sabres were right to keep the 31st pick? Only time will tell.