Ryan Johnson showing his worth at Sabres Prospects Challenge

The defenseman enters Monday with two excellent games under his belt

Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – The Buffalo Sabres will win the 2023 Sabres Prospects Challenge on Monday as long as they don’t lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation.

Buffalo has had two convincing wins so far in the tournament, starting Friday with a 6-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, followed by a 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

The "official" scoring is different, but I do go over the video for each goal scored, and forward Isak Rosen leads Buffalo in scoring, netting two goals and three assists for five points.

As you’ll see in this video, Rosen clearly makes a great pass to set up Jiri Kulich for a goal on Saturday, however, he didn’t get credit with an assist.

Russian defenseman Nikita Novikov has looked good in two games, and is second in scoring with four assists.

I think sometimes 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson flies under the radar, but I really have liked his play in these games.

Four years ago, the Sabres took Dylan Cozens with the seventh overall pick, and then drafted Johnson with the 31st overall selection that was acquired from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

The 22-year-old Johnson spent four years at the University of Minnesota, and could’ve gone to unrestricted free agency in August. However, he decided to sign his two-year entry-level contract with the Sabres.

It’s more than likely Johnson will start the 2023-24 season with the Rochester Americans, and head coach Seth Appert sounds like he’ll be pretty happy about that.

"I thought he was real good last night, and I thought he was excellent tonight," said Appert following Saturday's victory over the Devils. "Using that great skating ability to defend and take time and space away from people. I think he’s broken the puck out pretty darn efficiently in games that are a little bit chaotic, and I’ve been really pleased with how he’s played."

Johnson isn’t going to be an offensive defenseman, because the Sabres already have Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power who will lead the way there. Appert says there are other things Johnson does well that will definitely help.

"His game starts with his skating," he said. "Is he intelligent? Yes. Does he have talent? Yes. But Minnesota has done a really good job with him, as he and Brock Faber (Minnesota Wild) became their shutdown defensive pair. Now he’s been learning over the last few years to use that great skating for defense."

Johnson has not gotten any power play time in the first two games, but that’s by design.

"He could be running our power play, easily, because he’s got more than enough skill to do it. And he could run a power play in Rochester, but that isn’t his path to the NHL, because we have Dahlin and Power. They’re going to be running it for a long time. So it’s going to be being an elite defender, being a transitional puck-moving defenseman, and getting us on offense 5-on-5 and being a strong penalty killer," said Appert.

The Sabres have been perfect on the penalty kill in the tournament so far.

Johnson was in Rochester for the end of the Calder Cup Playoffs, but didn’t play. Johnson says he still got a lot out of being with the Amerks.

"It was cool being around the team, even if it was only a week," said Johnson earlier this past week. "I met a lot of the guys, and it was cool watching them prepare and watching the games, because it was pretty intense."

Nathan Paetsch went from being a development coach with the Sabres to being an assistant coach on Appert’s staff this upcoming season. Johnson says he liked dealing with the former NHL and AHL defenseman while he was in college.

"He was offering advice here and there, but asking how I felt and what I thought of the game that I had played in at Minnesota," Johnson said. "He’s given me good advice, like keeping it simple. He played the game for a long time (17 years in the NHL and AHL), so he knows most of the habits to play at a high level."

Most teams would prefer their younger players develop in the American Hockey League as soon as they’re eligible. Johnson spent four years with the Golden Gophers, because he thought it would be his best path.

"A lot of guys can benefit from the extra years of development before they step into the pro game, and that was my case," Johnson said. "Having those extra years to work on my game and to develop as a person and as a player too is helpful.

"It’s not for everyone, but I think it was helpful for my path."

Join me, Brian Koziol and Brayton Wilson for all the action Monday between the Sabres and Penguins at 5 p.m. ET on The Bet 1520.

Photo credit Losi and Gangi
Featured Image Photo Credit: Rochester Americans (@AmerksHockey)