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Sabres goalie prospect Jonas Johansson exceeding expectations with Amerks

ROCHESTER – Before winger Victor Olofsson emerged as one of the Buffalo Sabres’ top prospects, their 2014 draft ranked among the worst in franchise history.

Other than Olofsson, a rare seventh-round gem, only winger Sam Reinhart, the second overall pick, has paid dividends.

In the last five years, the Sabres have traded or let go of six other selections. None of them ever played in Buffalo.

Still, that weak 2014 class could produce one more NHL player.

Goalie Jonas Johansson, 24, has quietly developed into a strong prospect, starting eight of the Rochester Americans’ first 18 games this season.

The affable Johansson has performed so well, he has stolen a little playing time from veteran Andrew Hammond.

Right now, the Amerks don’t have a designated No. 1 goalie.

“It is hard to say a No. 1 or 2 or 1A, 1B,” said assistant coach Gord Dineen, who served as interim coach for seven weeks. “The good thing I love to see is that Jonas is really getting an opportunity at the American League level, and he’s made the most of it.”

Johansson’s opportunity materialized, in part, because top goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 20, wasn’t ready to play until earlier this month after undergoing hip surgery in April. Luukkonen has been with the Cincinnati Cyclones, their ECHL affiliate, to continue his recovery.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-5, 219-pound Johansson has seized his chances in Rochester, winning his last three starts.

In 10 total appearances, he has compiled a 5-2-2 record with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.

“He’s steady,” winger Andrew Oglevie said. “He’s never too high, he’s never too low. He’s been making some fabulous saves. For the most part, I think he’s doing a good job of just staying focused.”

Comfort and familiarity in the AHL have helped buoy Johansson’s success.

“You know what to expect,” said Johansson, who played 19 AHL games over the previous three seasons. “I just know how it works, I would say. That’s a big deal.”

Johansson, who came to North America late in the 2016-17 season, has spent the bulk of his career with the Cyclones, playing 54 games. While Luukkonen is regarded as the Sabres’ goalie of the future, the organization views Johansson as a prospect.

They awarded him a period of NHL action in each of the last two preseasons. Last year, he was playing so well in the ECHL that he earned a recall to AHL when the Amerks had two healthy goalies.

“I love to see his development,” Dineen said. “The one thing about him is he’s really motivated and he really works his tail off. So I love to see him garner more opportunity because of that.”

Johansson might have played more AHL games last season if he hadn’t undergone season-ending surgery in February to repair a torn meniscus.

“It was not one specific situation to where it happened,” Johansson said. “It was more nagging over time, and suddenly it was torn.”

Johansson, who had fully recovered by training camp, said he set a goal of playing as many AHL games as possible this season.

“It made it really simple to just narrow it down and focus on myself,” he said.

Some of Johansson’s success can be traced to his personality. He always seems to be smiling.

Hammond said he has never seen him in a bad mood.

“That reflects on the ice that he just has the same approach every day,” he said. “He’s been very consistent from Day One.”

The relationship Johansson and Hammond, 31, have quickly established has also helped.

“He’s exactly like you want your goalie partner to be – supportive, competitive and just a nice guy,” Johansson said.

The duo often spends time on the ice together before practice.

“We both enjoy the extra stuff, the details of getting out before practice and working on our skating,” said Hammond, who has compiled a 7-1-1 mark with a 2.63 goals-against average, a .902 save percentage and two shutouts in nine games. “It’s definitely a lot easier. It’s almost like in the gym having a workout partner.”

But how much longer will they be partners? The Sabres want to take their time with Luukkonen, so he could stay in the ECHL a little longer.

At some point, the Amerks will summon Luukkonen. When that happens, they might have a good problem.

“You deal with it when it comes,” Dineen said of possibly having three goalies.

Nelson finds his groove

After Casey Nelson spent a season and a half in Buffalo, the Sabres waived the defenseman at the end of camp and sent him to the Amerks.

Right away, Nelson, 27, tried to embrace the demotion.

“I’m just happy and playing – playing the game that we love,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

Nelson adjusted slowly – “He was feeling his way back into it,” Dineen said – before finding a groove.

“Sometimes it’s harder to play at this level, especially for a defenseman,” Dineen said. “It’s maybe not as structured. (It’s) more frenetic, (there’s) more action. The NHL can be a little more positional. …

“It took him a little while to get back to his game.”

Nelson has developed a more offensive style this season, regularly moving the puck.

“I’m using my feet more and more and just getting up leading the rush,” he said.

Nelson, who has a knack for getting pucks on net from the point, also said he’s shooting more often.

“You just get more comfortable with fake shots and moving laterally,” he said.

Nelson has scored three goals and nine points in 16 games.

Amerks notes

After spending nearly two months in the NHL, the Sabres assigned John Gilmour to the Amerks on Saturday after he cleared waivers. Gilmour, who recorded an assist in Saturday’s 4-2 road win over the Binghamton Devils, gives the Amerks 10 defensemen. … Injuries forced the Amerks to use two defensemen – Brandon Hickey and Nathan Paetsch – as wingers in their 3-2 overtime win against the Cleveland Monsters on Nov. 15. While Paetsch has regularly played forward during his career, Hickey said he hadn’t played up front since a brief run when he was 15. “I just kind of tried to not think and just go out there and play,” said a smiling Hickey. … With five forwards injured, the Amerks signed Brady Vail, 25, to a pro tryout on Thursday. Vail played 18 games with Rochester in 2016-17. ... The Amerks host Toronto at Blue Cross Arena on Friday, their first look at the Marlies since coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the Maple Leafs. The Amerks then travel to Cleveland on Saturday.

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