ROCHESTER – Hours before Americans goalie Jonas Johansson earned his ninth consecutive victory earlier this month, coach Chris Taylor called the Swede into his office and relayed some news.
Taylor told Johansson that he had been selected to represent the North Division in the American Hockey League All-Star Classic in Ontario, Calif.
“I absolutely had not thought of it,” Johansson, 24, said of being named an all-star.
At that point on Jan. 3, the Buffalo Sabres prospect had compiled a sterling 10-2-2 record and ranked second in the AHL in goals-against average and save percentage.
Still, Taylor said Johansson “was very surprised.”
“It was one of those humbling moments to give a player that he acted so surprised and couldn’t believe it,” Taylor said of informing Johansson of his honor. “It just tells you what type of person he is and how grounded he is.”
When the season started, Johansson had played just 19 AHL games and was coming off knee surgery that required four months of rehabilitation.
The 6-foot-5, 219-pound Johansson spent most of his first two seasons in North America in the ECHL, only occasionally earning recalls to the Amerks. Last February, a torn meniscus ended his strong campaign with the Cincinnati Cyclones.
So Johansson, given his minimal experience and recent injury history, might rank as the unlikeliest of the 48 AHL All-Stars for Monday's game.
“He fought for his career, and that’s what I like,” said Seamus Kotyk, the Sabres’ goaltending development coach. “He laid it out on the line. … and he didn’t quit.”
Johansson, a third-round pick in 2014, 61st overall, has quietly developed into one of the AHL’s top netminders. He said this season has been the “most fun hockey of my career so far.”
Not only has Johansson morphed into a notable prospect, he and veteran Andrew Hammond, who has slumped recently, have formed a strong partnership.
“I really like it here,” Johansson said. “I like the team and my teammates and my colleague, Hammy. It’s just been really, really fun so far.”
Amerks General Manager Randy Sexton acknowledged Johansson’s exploits – he finally lost a game Jan. 8, ending a streak that started Oct. 30 – have surprised him “a little bit.”
“We weren’t sure he would be ready to perform to the same level he has this soon this season,” he said. “We thought it might take him until Christmas to get comfortable, keep his confidence. But he came to training camp in unbelievable shape, he was ready.
“This kid does everything the right way, and he does everything we ask him to. So it’s really gratifying to see him have so much success.”
Sexton and Taylor have spoken about how much the organization values Johansson as a prospect. But Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the Ontario Hockey League’s MVP and top goalie last season, receives most of the attention from outsiders.
Johansson hasn’t been labeled the Sabres’ goalie of the future.
“People around maybe had lower expectations, and that probably helped me … to be a little underdog, I guess,” said Johansson, who has compiled a 12-3-3 mark with a 2.21 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts in 19 games this season. “It’s a little easier to play. I just try to not think about the expectations.”
Johansson said he has felt like an underdog most of his career. He spent most of 2016-17, his last season in Sweden, playing for Almtuna IS, a second-division team. He played 54 ECHL games before graduating to the AHL.
Kotyk said consistency had been Johansson’s “biggest issue.”
“He plays a few good games and then he’s off for a couple, and it felt like this year the consistency got stronger,” he said. “The gaps between a poor goal against or a poor game were smaller. He was regrouping.
“I like to say that he was eliminating those thoughts from his mind that were maybe there in the past. He just looked strong, he looked confident. There was a purpose, whether it was practice or a game, it was like he was set out to do something.
“That’s really what I noticed is right out of the gate the consistency was there, game in, game out.”
Johansson said he has tried to revamp his approach this season by blocking out any outside noise.
“I have no focus at all about what people think or expect,” he said. “I just try to … focus on myself. I feel like I’m finding my way there to have the right mindset.”
Johansson said he had no idea how much he would play this season.
“I just try to put everything like that aside and just be happy for every game I get,” he said. “So I don’t know if I exceeded expectations, really. I’m just really happy with how the season has gone so far.”
Seamus Kotyk said Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s short recall to the Amerks – the Finnish rookie played two games, going 0-1-1 – “was a good litmus test.”
“Coming up midyear … the league always takes a step, and it was noticeable,” he said of the level of play. “The details, the habits, the foundational aspects of his game were just a step behind or a little bit off in practice.
“But that’s good, because it’s an eye-opener as to how do we want to restructure when we’re working with him when he’s with Cincinnati.”
Luukkonen, 20, posted a 3.38 goals-against average and an .887 save percentage during his brief stint.
“Overall, we’re happy, we’re satisfied,” Kotyk said. “It was a great test to see where he’s at. I’m sure there’ll be more opportunities moving forward.”
Randy Sexton has said the Sabres want Luukkonen, an ECHL All-Star with Cincinnati, to play more AHL games later this season.
Five weeks ago, Andrew Hammond, 31, was perhaps the AHL’s hottest goalie. But since recording his fourth shutout in eight outings on Dec. 14, the veteran has lost seven consecutive starts.
Throughout his recent slump, Hammond said he has maintained the same approach he had earlier this season.
“I’m a person that tries staying very even-keeled when it’s going well and also when it’s not going well,” he said.
Hammond believes getting “too wound up either way” will take away from enjoying success.
“Even when things are going really well, and say you’re reading the news clippings or something, and everyone’s praising you, it’s easy to get caught up in that,” he said. “And then maybe you stop working as hard and worrying about the details of what makes you successful.”
Kotyk said Hammond’s demeanor has “been extremely valuable to him.”
“He has a level of professionalism that you always hope you see within your players,” he said. “He has an understanding of himself as a goalie, he knows what he wants to do, the style he wants to play and how he wants to practice and prepare.
“And he also understands because it’s not going as well as he wants in the results … he’s not going to break any of his foundation, any of his habits, any of his preparation to change the results.”
The Amerks ended their seven-game losing streak Wednesday in Cleveland by beating the Monsters 3-2 in overtime.
They host the Laval Rocket on Friday before playing a road game against the Syracuse Crunch on Saturday.
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