Since being selected in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft, Buffalo Sabres prospect Ryan Johnson has been mentioned so little that it would be understandable if fans had completely forgotten about him. He’s largely laid low in the years since, and the Sabres haven’t done much to bring him back into the spotlight. It might be because of that that the team now has a potential problem on its hands.
Johnson has yet to sign a contract with the Sabres and has remained with the University of Minnesota for the entirety of his collegiate eligibility. While that might not seem like an issue at first thought, there’s a possibility that he may never play for the blue and gold in Buffalo.
Johnson’s Resumé Is More Stacked Than It Seems
Don’t be fooled by the lack of attention he’s received. Johnson’s amateur career has been highly impressive since it began. He was named to the United States Hockey League (USHL)’s All-Rookie Team in his first and only season and helped the Sioux Falls Stampede capture their third Clark Cup championship. It caught the attention of the Sabres, and they took him with the final pick in the first round of the 2019 Draft (31st overall), which they received from the St. Louis Blues in the blockbuster 2018 Ryan O’Reilly trade.
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However, instead of immediately jumping to the professional ranks, Johnson opted to join the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and he’s proven it was the right call. In the four years since, he has grown into one of the NCAA’s top defensemen and has been praised for his skating ability and offensive instincts. He’s played in all 18 games for the Golden Gophers so far this season with eight points and a plus-10 rating. Funny enough, two of his teammates are Casey Mittelstadt‘s younger brothers, John and Luke.
Despite his college credentials, Johnson’s biggest highlight to this point has been on the international stage. He was named to the United States roster for the 2021 World Junior Championship, helping the Americans win their fifth gold medal, ironically over then-fellow Sabres prospect Dylan Cozens and Team Canada.
Given everything he’s accomplished before even joining the professional ranks, it’s somewhat puzzling that both the media and the Sabres have paid as little attention to Johnson as they have. It appears that his prospects for success in the NHL are high, but will he join the team that drafted him?
Spurned by the Sabres?
Since attending Sabres development camp this past summer, it was widely expected that this would be the season that Johnson finally signed with the team. However, he surprised everyone by opting to return to Minnesota for his senior year (from “Sabres prospect Ryan Johnson still returning to Minnesota for senior season”, The Buffalo News, 8/11/2022). Since then, there have been rumblings that he might bypass the Sabres altogether.
According to SB Nation, the Sabres hold his negotiating rights until Aug. 15, 2023. If he doesn’t sign an entry-level deal before then, he will become an unrestricted free agent. Given this, many are beginning to believe that Johnson doesn’t intend to join the team.
It’s unclear what the Sabres’ plans for him have been, and there are two ways to look at it. The first is that he simply doesn’t factor into their long-term outlook. But on the other hand, perhaps they want him to develop at his own pace and have kept the media away deliberately. Regardless, he hasn’t been in the team’s collective consciousness essentially since the day he was drafted.
With that in mind, an interesting question comes up — has Johnson been spurned by the Sabres’ presumed lack of interest in him? After all, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened with a prospect in recent memory, as they endured a very similar situation a few years ago. Cal Petersen, drafted in 2013, was once a promising goaltending prospect whom fans were excited to see in the future. Unfortunately for them, he eventually grew unhappy with the team’s plans for him (or perhaps lack thereof) under former general manager (GM) Tim Murray’s reign of terror. He opted against signing, eventually agreeing to a deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
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Though it wasn’t a complete loss on the Sabres’ end, as Petersen hasn’t exactly achieved superstardom, it shows that the team hasn’t had pretty results in this area. It’s very unlikely that they want to lose out on Johnson, as adding him to the team’s talented group of young blueliners would only further bolster their future. However, the organization’s track record at developing prospects is not great, and if he did want to seek greener pastures, it would be tough to blame him.
Where Do Johnson & the Sabres Stand?
It’s important to remember that at the moment, this is all speculation. Johnson holding out on signing doesn’t necessarily indicate that he’s disillusioned with the Sabres, as he could very well just be taking his time. In fact, judging on the comments he made this summer, it appears that his relationship with the team is currently a positive one.
Even if it isn’t, there are still eight months left before both sides need to make a decision, and lots can change in that time. But though there’s no concrete cause for concern just yet, the Sabres can’t take that for granted and getting Johnson aboard should be treated as a priority. If they’re not careful, another talented young player could slip out of their hands.