‘Hey Cam, it’s Coach Dennehy. Congratulations kid, you’re going to the show. Pack a bag and drive down to Newark as soon as possible, the New Jersey Devils need a goaltender and they want you to fly out and meet the team in Las Vegas.’
That’s how the phone call should have gone for Cam Johnson when he got called up to the NHL from the AHL’s Binghamton Devils. But. “I was actually supposed to start in Binghamton on Jan. 5 and I got a call at like 3:00 pm from our head coach. I actually slept right through his call because I was taking my pregame nap,” a laughing Johnson told The Hockey Writers. “I was ready to go for Bingo (that night). My first call was to my parents to let them know. After that I drove to Newark and then the Devils flew me out to meet the team in Vegas,” he said and then paused recalling it all again. “It was really cool. Vegas was an unbelievable spot to dress for my first game,” he added with a grin. “What a cool environment that is and what a sweet production they have there. It’s been a really cool, fast week or so (for me).”
In the Show
On the night of Jan. 4, Mackenzie Blackwood suffered a lower-body injury in Arizona, leaving Keith Kinkaid as the only healthy goaltender on the NHL roster, so Johnson’s services were certainly needed. New Jersey had a game in Vegas on Jan. 6, and one in Buffalo on Jan. 8 before they returned home to host Toronto two days later. The 24-year-old Johnson would dress as the backup goalie in all three games before he was returned to the AHL on Jan. 12.
Although he never saw a minute of action, the experience for the first-year pro was priceless. “It’s been amazing. It’s really cool to be here at the highest level, just seeing how the guys get treated and how guys carry themselves every day,” Johnson said, unable to hide the smile on his face as he looked around the NHL Devils’ locker room. “Everyone up here is a true pro. I can say that the week that I’ve already been here I’ve learned a ton. It’s been a really good experience and everything is first class.”
Johnson started this season in the AHL and when a logjam occurred in goal, he was the odd-man out. Binghamton assigned him to the Adirondack Thunder the day before Halloween when Eddie Lack was sent to the AHL once Cory Schneider was activated from the injured list. Talk about a chain reaction! Johnson was in the ECHL for a month, appearing in nine games (3-5-1) for the Thunder.
NEWS – CAM JOHNSON NAMED ECHL GOALTENDER OF THE WEEK!
Cam was a stud in net, going 2-0-0 with a .980 SV% and 0.50 GAA! Well deserved, and congrats, Cam!
— Adirondack Thunder (@ECHLThunder) November 6, 2018
He could have sulked, he could’ve had his confidence shattered. Instead, the native of Troy, Michigan took home the ECHL Goaltender of the Week award (Oct. 29-Nov.4). He went 2-0-0 with one shutout, a 0.50 goals-against average and a save percentage of .980. As a first-year pro after graduating from the University of North Dakota Johnson is learning a lot; and is eager to learn more.
“Definitely the sharpness,” Johnson replied when we asked what the biggest difference to him between the three leagues. “The sharpness of guys at the rink at practice and games. It’s the highest level. Up here it’s really sharp and guys come to the rink ready to go. Everyone’s a pro here, everyone’s good. I’d say that’s the biggest difference.”
“As you get down through the leagues, in the ECHL guys it’s a lot of guys just still wanting to play hockey whereas here it’s your job to play hockey. Definitely more serious up here and as you go down the ladder you have to be a self-starter, that’s one of the things that we preach,” he added. “It’s all good hockey though, it’s not anything too crazy. From the ECHL to the NHL – it’s faster, quicker, the guys are better but it’s nothing too crazy.”
Clemm is Key
A huge help for Johnson has been the tutelage of former Devil Scott Clemmensen, who is the team’s goaltending development coach. One of the reasons he was hired by GM Ray Shero is because he played at all levels and he can identify with young goalies. “He’s the man. Clemmer has been really good to me from the start. He’s a guy that’s gonna go to bat for me and I know that,” said Johnson.
“It’s really easy working with him, he’s a really good coach and a great mentor. We’re lucky to have a guy like him (around). He’s not there full-time, but he is around a ton. Getting on the ice with him…it’s what the Devils (franchise) expects of you and he preaches what they preach here at the highest level. Coming up here (to New Jersey this week) and seeing how Rollie (Melanson), the goalie coach up here does things, it’s pretty similar. Clemmer – kudos to him, he does an unbelievable job and we’re really lucky we have someone like that.”
Three starts before his NHL call-up Johnson recorded his first AHL shutout, stopping all 33 shots on the road against the Utica Comets in a 1-0 win for Binghamton. “It was just one of those games,” he said while grinning ear-to-ear, “from the start that I felt good (that night). The guys played well in front of me, they did what they could – cleared out bodies and just let me see the puck. So it was one of those nights where I was feeling it and making a lot of saves. Those games feel good and when the boys can rally, get on your side and just box out so you can see the puck; when you’re seeing the puck well it works out. Just one of those games where I was feeling good and I knew heading into it I was going to have a good game.”
— Binghamton Devils (@BingDevils) November 29, 2018
Put Me in Coach
For now, Johnson is back in the AHL. For how long, who knows. Lack is now out for the season. Blackwood has been staking his claim to the NHL job but is back in Binghamton during the NHL All-Star break. Schneider (winless in the NHL since December 2017) is in the AHL on a rehab assignment, trying to find his rhythm. Kinkaid is a pending UFA and could be dealt before the NHL trade deadline. While Johnson was in the NHL, the AHL Devils signed Evan Cormier (a former draft pick) to an AHL-deal because, well because they had no goalies left. So they have five active goalies and four spots in the NHL/AHL. Knowing him, whatever happens, he’ll take it all in stride.
“I tell you what, its a special thing (playing hockey),” Johnson said, “and we have the best job on earth, that’s for sure.”
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.