For Chad Johnson, going home for a season in Calgary was nice. But returning to the place that give him his first legitimate chance to be a starting goalie was even nicer.
Johnson set career highs in games (45) and wins (22) with the Buffalo Sabres two years ago. When free agency beckoned in July, he had a relatively simple decision to come back. In his first preseason start Tuesday night at Penn State, Johnson played two periods and stopped 23 of 24 shots in Buffalo’s 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It was good, sort of different emotions,” Johnson said Wednesday in HarborCenter. “It was a little bit weird coming back after being gone for a year. But it felt good to get out with a lot of familiar faces. It’s a new system, new philosophy and new energy with the team.”
Johnson, 31, went 22-16-4 with a 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage for the Sabres two years ago, playing largely in place of Robin Lehner in the wake of the high ankle sprain the starter suffered in the season’s opening game. Playing for the fifth team of his NHL career, Johnson even set the franchise record for saves in a shutout with a 44-stop sparkler against Anaheim.
Johnson moved on to Calgary last season and went 18-15-1/2.59/.910 while sharing the net with Brian Elliott. He signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Sabres shortly after free agency opened on July 1.
Johnson thrived early in the season with Elliott struggling, going 13-8-1/2.34/.920 in the season’s first three months. But Johnson ran into trouble in the second half while Elliott got hot and took over the Calgary net.
Johnson got just 14 games from January to the end of the season and had a 3.06 GAA and .891 save percentage.
“It was really special to play in front of the family for my hometown team with so many people supporting me,” he said. “Minor hockey coaches, former teammates, it was special in that sense. And to get the opportunity to play a lot of games … was great for my career and my confidence too that I can play at an elite level in this league.”
A few days before the expansion draft, the Flames traded Johnson to Arizona as part of the deal to acquire veteran Mike Smith. Johnson didn’t stay with the Coyotes once free agency called.
“Obviously the second half I didn’t get a lot of opportunity, which happens,” he said. “Elliott got hot there in February, won 10 straight games. It’s part of the game. But overall looking back and evaluating it, it was a really good year overall. I had four games that didn’t go my way that cost me playing time and being in a Canadian market, there’s a lot of pressure to make change really fast there. Overall I didn’t play a lot in the second half because the team turned around and got hot … but it was a really good year and I sort of built off my Buffalo year.”
Johnson said his relationships with Lehner and Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen, who was retained by Phil Housley in the wake of Dan Bylsma’s firing, were key points to his decision to return.
“The familiar faces here, the success I had here in the past, the fans, the organization,” he said. “Just everything went into it and made the decision easy to come back here. It’s definitely a weird feeling being back but comfortable in the same sense. … It was an easy transition for me and my wife and I’m excited to be back.
“The older I get, the different organizations I’ve been a part of, I know how important it is to have a good goalie coach, a guy that supports your game and the differences in each guy. He’s a big part of why I came back.”
Johnson said he hopes to use the first half of last season as a springboard this year. While Lehner enters the season as the starter, both goalies are on one-year contracts. A hot stretch from either could put them on an extended run of games.
“Statistically, absolutely it was one of my better stretches for two or three months,” Johnson said. “Overall in my game, with consistency when I get in, I respond a lot more. That stretch there, I got the results, which was great. You get more notice and recognition because of that. The last two years I’ve felt good about where my game has been and the consistency of it.”