The State of Sabres Goaltending is going to be one thick chapter in the organizational handbook heading into the summer.
Robin Lehner’s injury-plagued season was officially shelved Wednesday when the team announced he had surgery on the balky ankle that was severely sprained on Opening Night and never got back to 100 percent. The Sabres gave up a No. 1 draft choice to get Lehner, so he will ostensibly be their main man when training camp opens in the fall.
But what does General Manager Tim Murray do about Chad Johnson?
All the “backup goaltender” has done is play 43 games and counting, and win a career-high 20. At age 29, Johnson is adamant he can be a No. 1 man in the NHL. He has a 2.38 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage, and is set up as perhaps one of the top three choices in net among unrestricted free agents.
But here’s the kicker: He wants to stay. He’s making $1.6 million this season and perhaps the Sabres only need him for one more year, until Linus Ullmark is fully ready for the NHL. But Johnson is correctly thinking about at least a two-year deal. And he absolutely deserves one, whether it’s in Buffalo or somewhere else like his hometown, goaltender-famished Calgary.
“You never know if it’s out there or not,” Johnson told The Buffalo News prior to making 25 saves in Thursday’s 4-1 win over Toronto. “I’ve had a good season. I think I’ve put myself in a top slot in free agency and that’s all I can really do. Whether it’s signing a five-year deal, one-year deal, whatever it is. It’s hard to say.
“Really, I’d like to be here for a long time – more than two years. I’d like to be here four or five. But again, who knows what the contracts will be like and what else will be out there? I know there will be other opportunities.”
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The market for unrestricted goaltenders is awfully thin this summer. James Reimer, just traded by the Leafs to San Jose, might be the top of the list. Then there’s Johnson and old friend Jhonas Enroth. Florida backup Al Montoya and Rangers backup Antti Raanta. Aside from them is a group of broken-down veterans like Cam Ward, Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Nicklas Backstrom.
“It all comes down to comparisons come contract time. What this guy did, what you’re doing,” Johnson said. “What team he was on, what team you’re on. We’re always being compared statistically and a lot of times in contracts it’s kind of already set what you’re going to get by the comparisons.
“I’m a competitive guy and money talks, right? But at the same time, it’s not going to be all about the money. But having a good year you want to get rewarded for it and you want people to say you’re better than other guys available. It’s a competitive sport. If you have a bad year, it hurts you. If you have a good year, you want it to help you. It’s all about being a on a team that values me, understands my game and lets me play.”
Johnson said he’d be more than happy to return even though the Sabres clearly are committed to Lehner.
“I’ve had success with this group here. They’ve played well in front of me and I’ve played well with them,” Johnson said. “I think there’s that chemistry but there’s obviously other things that come into play. Where do they see you for the future? It all has to be decided. I want to be a starter and I’ve shown I can be a consistent guy in this league and play really good hockey regardless of whether I’m on a rebuilding team or not.”
Johnson didn’t break too much of a sweat in the first 30 minutes Thursday’s oddly docile game with the Leafs. Based on recent performances, it was an uncharacteristic no-show from the visitors, who hit town 7-4 in the last 11 with wins over the likes of Detroit, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Florida in that stretch.
Win No. 20 extended Johnson’s career high and made him the first Buffalo goaltender to reach that number since Ryan Miller did in 2011-12. Remember, the Sabres as a team won just 21 and 23 games, respectively, the last two years.
“It’s only one more than 19,” Johnson said. “It looks good on paper but ... I’d always like to have 30, 40. You always want more.”
There has been plenty of good play from Lehner but there has to be a level of disappointment in his truncated season as well. And the bottom line is this: Whenever Lehner takes the ice for his first game of the season next October, he will have just 21 NHL games under his belt in the previous 20 months. So no one has any idea if he can handle the rigors of being an NHL starter.
“The disappointment is that he got injured at the onset of the season in Game One and was out for that huge period of time,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “Once he rehabbed and got back to playing ... he showed us quite a bit about what kind of goalie he can be.”
Perhaps. Lehner finished 5-9-5/2.47/.924. He will have a full summer to get in shape and is staying in Buffalo to do it. He needs to. After a concussion ended his season in Ottawa 13 months ago, he was not in good shape at the start of this season. He needs to be leaner.
And the Sabres need to think long and hard about having Johnson on hand for veteran insurance. Maybe even more than that.