Photo courtesy of Buffalo Sabres/Bill Wippert
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Sabres/Bill Wippert
Ryan Johnson patiently stuck with the process.
While several of his peers left California years before he did to play for other programs or to go to prep schools, Johnson stayed with the Anaheim Jr. Ducks through his 16U season. One month into his professional career, the Buffalo Sabres called him up, and he’s remained in the NHL since early November.
“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “It was a great surprise, and it still feels like it. It was an opportunity that I’ve been given and I’m grateful to still be playing in Buffalo.”
In an era where high-end hockey players perpetually rush to move on to the next step, Johnson was patient. Though just 22, it’s clear it helped him get where he is.
The Sabres drafted Johnson 31st overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He spent four years marinating at the University of Minnesota before signing last summer. Johnson joined an organization that was stacked on defense, making his rise more impressive.
In 2018, Buffalo picked Ramus Dahlin first overall and Mattias Samuelson 32nd overall. In 2021, choosing first overall again, the Sabres drafted Owen Power. All three play on the left side, and all three have long-term, big-money financial commitments from the team. This past offseason, the Sabres signed two established unrestricted free agents — Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton — to play defense.
That meant Johnson, a left shot, had to master playing on his off-hand side if he wanted to reach the game’s highest level.
This is one of many areas where his training paid off.
“They thought I had a good camp and sent me to Rochester (of the American Hockey League),” Johnson said.
Johnson played in five preseason games for the Sabres and drew rave reviews from Buffalo coach Don Granato.
“He’s acclimated very fast to how we want to play systematically to how we want to play as a pair of D,” Granato told the team’s website. “It’s been really impressive to see that in him.”
Johnson started well in Rochester, picking up four assists in nine games and was tied for second in the AHL in scoring for rookie defensemen. But his game is more about using his excellent skating ability and stick positioning to prevent goals and then transition the puck out of the zone. He plays a smart, steady game and takes to heart that a defenseman’s first job is to defend.
This was years in the making, said Jr. Ducks Director of Player Development Alex Kim. Kim coached Johnson for two seasons and has worked with Ryan’s father, Craig, an Anaheim Ducks assistant coach as well as the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches since the club implemented a AAA program more than a decade ago.
“Ryan really trusted the process,” Kim said. “I don’t know if people appreciate how difficult it is to play at the levels he did and get to the NHL. Often when players are goal-setting they have a certain goal in mind, but they forget there are other levels you have to master.
“He took it one day at a time and wanted to get better each day. Having that mindset and that process is underappreciated. People lose sight of that. You have to appreciate the effort he put in every day that he trained. I saw a lot of that in the summers. He was pretty diligent about getting his lifts in, working on areas he needed to develop on the ice.”
It’s not a surprise that Ryan and his older brother Eric gravitated toward the ice. After all, Craig grew up playing in the Twin Cities area and went on to have a decorated NCAA career in three seasons at Minnesota before playing in the 1994 Olympics and in 557 NHL games mostly with the Los Angeles Kings and the Mighty Ducks.
Craig wrapped up his playing career in Europe and gravitated toward coaching, building a resume that includes work with USA Hockey and various developmental roles with the Kings and Ducks.
The Jr. Ducks also benefitted. Under his guidance, the club’s AAA teams have qualified for Nationals 17 times since 2015 and helped more than 70 players to NCAA Division I commitments.
He coached Ryan’s teams along with Hockey Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, whose son Jackson also is a 2001 birth year and plays at Arizona State, and later Kim.
“It was great having my dad as my coach,” Ryan said. “He’s so smart and he played at a high level. Having him as a coach was a blessing.”
Ryan’s teams had plenty of success, including the club’s first AAA bronze medal at Nationals in 2018 at 16U.
“We always had a solid team, a nationally competitive team,” Ryan said. “We had a lot of talented guys, many of whom are still playing.
“One of the reasons was the coaching at the Jr. Ducks. It was so important, and all of them were such a big influence, both through leading the team and working with us individually. My dad, Scott, Alex, I’m thankful for them and the way they’ve had an impact on me as a person and as a player. Their experience is special.
“It’s fun to work with people who genuinely care about their players.”
Could Ryan have left California, sooner? Yes. In 2016, he had his sights set on making the U.S. National Team Development program, which collects many of the nation’s top U17 and U18 players each year to train and compete internationally as well as against the United States Hockey League and NCAA programs. Fellow Jr. Ducks 2001 Cam York played there.
“My goal and dream was to play for the NTDP,” Ryan recalled. “When that door closed, playing at home was the best option.”
The next spring after helping the Jr. Ducks 16U team and Santa Margarita Catholic reach the U.S. Hockey Youth Nationals, Ryan became the highest-drafted Californian in the USHL’s Phase I draft when the Sioux Falls Stampede picked him third overall.
“There’s a time to leave, and as a parent, you never get that time back when they’re there for breakfast and dinner. It’s not a long time in the big picture,” Kim said. “By the time Ryan was 14 or 15 he was good enough to play in junior. I don’t know about physically, but he was smart enough and skilled enough to do it.”
Ryan attended the Stampede’s camp but returned home for his 16-year-old season, his ever-present self-awareness intact.
“With the USHL, I wasn’t ready,” he said. “Playing at home was the best option. As I look back, that was the most beneficial thing I could have done. Leaving home later to go to the USHL (which happened in 2018) and then playing four years of college helped prepare me for where I am today.”
That is not to say there weren’t other options, such as prep schools or other well-known programs, on the table.
“He had a lot of choices, but he stayed,” Kim said. “Craig invested a lot of time into Ryan. He was very devoted as a father and then as a coach. You see it in how Ryan prepares.
Individual skill is one thing, and Ryan’s is impressive. But there was something more significant.
“He always worked hard in practice, set the standard for how to practice,” Kim said. “It was infectious. Teammates saw it and realized they had to keep up with him. He’s always been the pace car for his teams. When you set the standard, it enables you to be a leader.”
That has extended off the ice.
“How he interacts with people, he’s a special kid,” Kim added. “I see this every summer when he’s back training. He doesn’t really care who is on the ice with him. … It could be a little guy or a college or junior player. He just focused on what he had to do.
“He would take the time to talk to kids. It didn’t matter who they were. People don’t see that integrity. After skates, he would talk to kids or give them a pointer. When you’re observing this day after day, you start to appreciate and understand why he’s such a good person, all hockey aside.
“It speaks volumes about what a great job Craig and Brittany did with all three of their kids.”
When it was time to move on, team success followed. Really followed.
During his first — and only — season of juniors, Ryan was part of Team USA’s gold-medal-winning World Junior A Challenge team in December 2018. The next spring, he helped the Stampede win the USHL’s Clark Cup.
Then it was on to Minnesota after a fierce recruitment process. Following in his father’s footsteps made for a touching story, but it also brought plenty of pressure. Craig was an elite NCAA player, ringing up 135 points (54 goals) in 119 games and getting drafted 33rd overall in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.
As fate had it, the 2019 Entry Draft was held in the same city as the 1990 one. However, it wasn’t the production then as it is now so Craig wasn’t there when the St. Lous Blues called his name. In the same draft in which Philadelphia made York the highest-drafted California-born and -trained player (14th overall), the Sabres picked Ryan 31st.
Ryan stepped right into the Golden Gophers’ lineup and ended up playing 138 games in four seasons despite the Covid pandemic ending the 2019-20 season prematurely and shortening the next season by a dozen or so games.
In between, Ryan teamed with York to help Team USA win the World Junior Championship in January 2021.
Most drafted players in NCAA hockey, especially first-rounders, typically sign a pro contract after their junior seasons. Cue patience, again.
Ryan elected to stay at Minnesota for a fourth season. He helped the Gophers reach the Frozen Four for a second consecutive season.
“It helped,” he said simply. “It’s a credit to God. I felt like it was the best choice for me. I saw the pressure of everyone else going and signing. We had different paths. Mine was another year of school. Looking back, I feel like I benefitted and was more prepared. College was a blast. The relationships I was given were amazing.”
Ryan signed with the Sabres this past May, and here we are.
“To see him on TV and see him make it, it’s pretty neat,” Kim said. “Because of players like Ryan the Jr. Ducks have established themselves as a recognizable program. That’s the impact he’s made.
“We’ve had good teams, but when you have a player of that caliber who stays in the program, then establishes himself in the USHL, in college hockey and then the NHL, you don’t see it very often. It goes back to patience and persistence.”
Kim sees far-reaching benefits to Ryan’s example.
“He gives kids in Southern California hope for their hockey dreams,” the coach said. “It could be an 8-year-old or a 14-year-old who wants to understand more. He’s an example of what it takes.
“I don’t think it stops with this. He has a lot of runway ahead of him. He’s got a lot of opportunities to grow. It’s exciting to see what’s to come for him as a player and as an ambassador. He’s a role model.”