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Sabres hold on to No. 31 pick, select defenseman Ryan Johnson

VANCOUVER — Jason Botterill didn't attempt to trade up from the No. 31 pick Friday night in Rogers Arena.

Instead, the Buffalo Sabres' general manager sat at the team's table and waited to see which player would be atop his NHL draft board when they were on the clock with the final pick of the first round.

His selection: Ryan Johnson, a 17-year-old left-shot defenseman who played this past season for Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. Johnson, a University of Minnesota commit, was ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the draft's 33rd-best North American skater.

The Sabres could have chosen a number of talented forwards -- winger Arthur Kaliyev went undrafted on Day 1 despite being ranked as the draft's seventh-best North American skater -- but Botterill added yet another young defenseman to his prospect pool.

"I talked to them at the combine and obviously had no idea going in," Johnson said of the Sabres. "Anything can happen at the draft, but I’m just grateful to be part of this organization."

There was some question whether the Sabres would keep the No. 31 pick, which was acquired from the St. Louis Blues as part of last summer's Ryan O'Reilly trade. After all, Botterill could have tried to use his draft capital to acquire an NHL player, particularly a forward.

However, no trades were made as teams wait for the league to finalize its salary cap for the 2019-20 season. Picking a defenseman may have surprised fans since the team has selected seven during Botterill's first two drafts as general manager.

Johnson, though, is the sort of new-age, offensive-minded defenseman the Sabres are trying to build around.

Johnson, who is listed at 6-foot, 170 pounds, scored six goals among 25 points in 54 regular-season games for Sioux Falls, a performance that earned him a spot on the USHL's all-rookie team.

Johnson also recorded eight points in 12 playoff games to help Sioux Falls win the Clark Cup.

"We felt very comfortable with his development throughout the year," Botterill explained. "Some similar characteristics to [No. 7 overall pick] Dylan [Cozens]: very good athlete, very good skater. Has that ability to play well in his defensive zone, play against other teams’ top players. He also has puck-moving ability.

"When we talk about how we eventually want our team to play and how we play when we’re successful, it’s our defensemen joining the rush. Our defensemen getting pucks up to our talented forwards and we really felt Ryan fits the bill."

Some of those attributes are similar to those held by Johnson's father, Craig, who was the 33rd overall pick of the St. Louis Blues in 1990. Craig Johnson played 10 NHL seasons as a left winger for the Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals.

He scored 75 goals among 173 points in 557 career NHL games from 1994-2004, capping his playing career with a four-year stint overseas.

The family settled in Orange County, Calif., where Ryan played for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks and grew up rooting for the NHL club of the same nickname.

Johnson flourished with Sioux Falls, where he won a championship and established himself as one of the top defensemen in this draft.

"I think I grew a lot defensively," Johnson said. "I really found my game in that aspect. I found out I can defend really well and I think that carried over. That’s a big part of playing defense, obviously. I got more comfortable playing in a tougher league and grew a lot. Became more confident as well."

That progress, Johnson said, made him a more well-rounded defenseman and introduced him to the rigors of a more competitive, physical league. His work has only begun, though.

Johnson will participate in the Sabres' development camp next week in Harborcenter, where he will compete against a number of the organization's talented defensive prospects. The team used five of its six picks in last year's draft on defensemen, including Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson.

Johnson, though, will require at least a few college seasons before he is ready to start a professional career.

"Obviously try to have a good training camp and do my best out there, work the hardest," Johnson said. "After that, head to Minnesota; Develop, grow as a player and play a couple years there. We’ll see where that takes me."

[Comprehensive coverage: the 2019 NHL Draft]

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