As the regular season wraps up, the Sabres unsung hero Chad Johnson enters unrestricted free agency. After a career year this past season, Johnson will look to capitalize on the opportunity. The Sabres would almost certainly like to have Johnson back, but has he played himself out of Buffalo?
A Career Year
Entering the season Johnson was slated to be the back up goaltender behind Robin Lehner. Not even one period into the season everything changed for Johnson. Lehner suffered a freak high ankle sprain and would miss over three months of the season. The keys to the Sabres’ net were handed off to Johnson and rookie goaltender Linus Ullmark for the majority of the season. Johnson and Ullmark split time until January when Lehner returned. Upon his return, Lehner assumed the starting role again. However, Lehner’s ankle injury returned and Johnson took over the net again, but this time it was only him.
Early in the season Johnson played well for the majority of the games, but always seemed to allow that one back-breaking soft goal at the wrong time. As he became more comfortable, that bad goal went away. Johnson gave the Sabres an opportunity to win in nearly every game, if not every game, he played throughout the season. The more starts he received the stronger he grew. Johnson posted a .920 save percentage in the 45 games he appeared. That ranked him tied for tenth in the NHL among goaltenders who played in at least 41 games. His 2.36 goals against average put him tied for thirteenth in the league. His goals against average and save percentage ranked him in the top half of goaltenders this season. Lastly, Johnson, picked up 22 wins in 45 appearances. He became the first Sabres goaltender to win at least 20 games since Ryan Miller in the 2011-12 season.
Playing His Way Out of Buffalo
The 45 appearances were a career high for Johnson. The 29-year-old wanted the opportunity to prove he can be a number on goaltender. He was given that chance this season and he ran with it. The career NHL backup showed he can be counted on to play starting goaltender minutes. Buffalo would certainly like to have Johnson back in the fold for the next few seasons. However, the crease will belong to Robin Lehner come the beginning of next season. The organization invested a first round pick at least year’s draft to acquire him from Ottawa. Johnson knows what the goaltending situation is in Buffalo going forward and it doesn’t line up with his plans to be a starting goaltender.
Chad Johnson loves Buffalo, but of course objective is to be a starter. He feels he's had big year, so he'll make opportunity-based decision
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) April 10, 2016
By playing so well this season, Johnson, may have unintentionally played his way out of Buffalo. In the Sabres’ postseason press conference, General Manager Tim Murray talked about his desire to bring Johnson back. He went on to say all things equal that Johnson would welcome a return to Buffalo. However, Murray himself indicated that all things may not be equal come July. The Sabres see Johnson as a back up goaltender and would welcome him back to compete. Other teams around the league may see him as a potential starter with how he played this season. A team that could come calling is his hometown Calgary Flames who’ll be in the market for a goaltender.
Tim Murray says he'd like to have Chad Johnson back. Lots of other factors, however. #Sabres
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) April 11, 2016
At the end of the day Johnson’s return to Buffalo seems unlikely at this point. It would make sense for a team to come calling and offer the Canadian-born goalie an opportunity to be a number one. The goaltender free agent market is thin this summer. Johnson would likely be the second best one available behind James Reimer. A lot can change come July, but Johnson will likely get his chance to be a starter. An opportunity he deserves after a break-out season.