With Scott Wedgewood and Adam Wilcox penciled in as the Rochester Americans’ goalies this season, prospect Jonas Johansson is likely ticketed for the Cincinnati Cyclones again.
The ECHL, a level below the AHL, isn’t exactly rich with NHL prospects. But the league that bills itself as “AA hockey” has proven to be a strong development ground for goalies.
Limited space often forces teams to send talented goalies with an NHL future there so they can play. Buffalo Sabres goalie Carter Hutton, for example, played 14 games for the Toledo Walleye in 2011-12.
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Johansson spent most of his first full North American season with the Cyclones, going 14-11-0 with a 3.13 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 27 games.
Long-term, of course, the ECHL wouldn’t be ideal for the Swede.
“Down in the East Coast League is maybe not the place you want to be for the rest of your career,” Johansson said.
Still, Johansson, a third-round pick in 2014, 61st overall, understands how much the league can help young netminders, especially those from Europe.
“It’s a great starting point and a great experience for a lot of goalies,” he said.
Johansson, 23, is quietly one of the Sabres’ more intriguing prospects. The Sabres awarded him a period of play Sept. 17 in Columbus, his first NHL exhibition action. They also kept him in training camp until Wednesday.
“He’s a positional-based goalie,” Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen said. “He gets to his spot and he uses his size.”
Allen said Johansson’s best asset is his lower body – “His edge control, his lateral mobility and his post play,” he said – and the Sabres have worked to improve his upper half.
While Johansson might be sent to Cincinnati, if the Sabres recall Wedgewood, the Amerks could give him regular duty. Johansson played seven AHL games last season.
On Thursday, Johansson dressed as Adam Wilcox’s backup in the Amerks’ 4-2 win preseason over the Toronto Marlies before a few hundred fans at HarborCenter.
Coach Chris Taylor said Johansson will play in the Amerks’ second preseason game Saturday.
Allen noticed Johansson’s development as he acclimated to the North American game over the past year.
“His presence, his body language, just confidence level looked better and better all the way through our camp, that he felt more comfortable in the North American game,” Allen said. “He looked a little late on things last year, and as the season went on, he felt like he was good on his feet and he felt comfortable.”
Johansson might already possess an NHL work ethic. Allen said the young goalie goes hard “on and off the ice.”
“He’s a very, very well-conditioned athlete and he’s an intense guy,” Allen said. “He’s someone I sometimes have to joke around with him a bit to get him to relax. He wants it, he wants everything so he chases everything. …
“But his work habits are through the roof, off the chart. Teammates love him in practice because he battles and he competes in every drill. Guys like to be around him.”
Naturally, sticking around NHL camp so long boosted Johansson’s confidence.
“You get to practice and work out with the top-of-the-line players,” he said.
Johansson won’t enjoy that if he goes back to the Cyclones. He said ECHL hockey isn’t “a very beautiful game all the time.” Still, he understands that can be a benefit.
“For a goalie, it makes it almost harder to play at, so I think it’s great to have that experience and play a lot of weird situations,” Johansson said.
Allen, who spent most of his playing career in the ECHL, said those situations force goalies to be more patient on their feet and read more plays.
As goalies move up the ladder to the AHL and NHL, the game calms down because there’s more structure.
“It gets in some ways easier for the goalie,” Allen said. “Now, the talent level and the speed of release gets higher so your timing changes. But the actual structure of the game (at) the East Coast League level, as a goalie, you learn a lot. That allows you make the next jump feel a little bit easier for you.”
Johansson might be ready for that jump soon.
“I think last year was a great step and important year for me,” he said. “I’m feeling ready to take the next step.”
In Thursday's game, defenseman Arvin Atwal connected on winger C.J. Smith’s pass 14:08 into third period to put the Amerks up 3-2 against the Marlies.
Winger Pascal Aquin, who tied the game earlier in the period, sealed it with an empty-net goal.
Aquin, a free agent from QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders, said he felt “a little stressed” at the beginning his first pro game.
“That takes some pressure off my shoulders,” he said.
Aquin, 21, said his skating and forechecking abilities helped him land a pro contract.
“I’m not a skill guy,” he said. “I just try to keep it simple and do the dirty work.”
Defenseman Nathan Paetsch scored the Amerks’ other goal.
Smith, one of the AHL’s top rookies last season, enjoyed a strong camp with the Sabres, scoring one goal in three exhibition appearances.
“I felt I had a good camp,” Smith said. “It was a little frustrating. You can’t let that get to you. If you kind of take a dip, they’ll notice that, then it’ll hurt you.”
Right away, Taylor said he noticed Smith wouldn’t be pouting over his demotion.
“He’s a mature kid,” Taylor said. “What I like about him is his first practice he was ready to go this morning. Sometimes you don’t know until you get to the game how he’s going to be. I thought his energy was perfect, saying all the right things and doing all the right things on the ice. I thought his compete level was awesome.”