Johnson's poise led to early NHL arrival
Star college goaltender turned many heads in his first season as a pro
• Johnson's World Championship Journal
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The time it takes for most NHL goaltending prospects to reach the NHL after turning pro is usually measured in years, but Chad Johnson, who turns 24 on Thursday, was hardly a typical goaltending prospect for the Blueshirts in 2009-10.
As a first-year pro this past season, Johnson's wait for his first NHL start could be measured in months -- just over two, to be exact.
Coming out of his first NHL training camp, where he was impressive in two preseason games, Johnson was assigned to the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack. By Dec. 3, he was back up with the Blueshirts and would spend much of the next three months serving as Henrik Lundqvist's primary backup with the Rangers.
It was a great 2009-10 run for a 6-foot-3, 200-pound goalie just one season removed from his four-year collegiate career at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where he was the CCHA Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker finalist with the Nanooks as a senior. Originally picked by Pittsburgh, No. 125 overall, in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Johnson was traded to the Rangers for a fifth-round draft pick during the 2009 draft at Montreal. Rangers scouts, who had seen Johnson perform in college, were very happy to make the deal.
"We actually projected and expected that he would play like this," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "I loved everything about him, and when we traded the draft pick for him, we had hoped that he would be able to go right in and be the No. 1 goalie in Hartford."
Joining the Rangers opened up doors for Johnson, who arrived at training camp with great enthusiasm. Well-spoken and thoughtful, he was all about patience as he began his pro career and understood he would be starting the year in Hartford, where he hoped to emerge as a full-time goalie in the AHL.
|Chad Johnson, the No. 1 netminder with the Wolf Pack this past season, ended his AHL rookie year in style with a season-high, five-game winning streak.|
Rangers fans who watched preseason games were quick to notice Johnson's potential. He was remarkably poised during a 3-2 shootout loss at New Jersey on Sept. 16, stopping 19 of 20 shots over the game's final 35:24. He was a perfect 4-for-4 in saves during the overtime period and took the Devils to a six-round shootout before giving up the winner.
Three nights later at Boston, Johnson made his mark again in the second half of a 5-2 win over the Bruins. He played the final 30:46, stopping all 12 shots he faced and making three saves as the Rangers successfully killed a Boston 5-on-3 just moments after Johnson entered the game.
"Being able to get in some preseason games helped me out a lot," said Johnson. "I think I was more nervous for those games than I was actually for the regular season games, just because it's your first kind of experience around NHL players in an NHL environment."
In the NHL preseason, Johnson allowed only one goal on 32 shots. He continued to impress at Hartford, where he quickly took over as the team's No. 1 goalie after registering his first AHL win on Oct. 10.
"College hockey definitely prepared me," Johnson said of his transition to the pros. "The game is pretty quick at the college level, too, so I think speed-wise it wasn't too much of a jump for me."
Between his AHL debut with the Pack and his first call-up to the Rangers in early December, Johnson started 16 games for Hartford, including 11 of 13 in November. During those first 16 games, he was among the game's Three Stars seven times and recorded back-to-back shutouts in mid-November.
Johnson was starting to turn heads, but he took it all in stride, thanks to his usual calmness.
|Chad Johnson was a bit surprised to get his first NHL start so early in his career, but as always, he showed great poise in a Jan. 7 OT shootout loss at Atlanta.|
A week after compiling a four-game winning streak, Johnson's back-to-back shutouts helped raise his profile even more. On Nov. 13 vs. Manchester, he was perfect with 26 saves. The following night at Worcester, he made 14 stops in the first period and 13 in the second en route to a 35-save performance. He came back on Nov. 18 with another 35 saves in a 2-1 overtime shootout loss to Binghamton.
The timing of his surge was perfect. When the Blueshirts needed a backup for a very busy Lundqvist at the start of December, Johnson was there to answer the call.
"I was a little bit surprised when I got called up that first time, particularly when I looked at where I was a year earlier," said Johnson. "That's what I did as soon as I got the call. I kind of thought 'Wow, think where I was at one year ago, playing my senior year of college hockey, and now I'm going to be putting on an NHL jersey for a regular-season NHL game.’”
He joined the Rangers on Dec. 3, but saw no game action before being returned to Hartford a week later. During this time, he got to work closely Rangers Assistant and Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire.
"He (Allaire) was so good with me and communicated so well," said Johnson. "I have a good relationship with him, and he helped me out with teaching me the game at the NHL level. There are little things in terms of the way plays happen and the way guys' tendencies are. He always talked to me about that. He was a huge influence on the adjustment for me going from the AHL to the NHL so quickly. … Being able to go up earlier and not get thrown into a game right away helped me out, too, because I could sort of see the level of play and the intensity and what guys do."
From Allaire's viewpoint, it was also a pleasure to work with Johnson last season.
"When I saw him play last year and the way he approached the game, I could tell he had all the qualities needed to play in the NHL," Allaire said.
Early on, the Rangers began sending Johnson back to the Pack to give him playing time when possible.
Johnson was shuttled back and forth seven times in 2009-10, playing a total of five NHL games and seven AHL games in December, January and February. Some goaltenders might not have adapted well to the constant switching of leagues, but Johnson embraced everything about it.
"I don't think it took a toll on me at all. I think it really helped me throughout the season, being able to do that. It was more positive than anything," said Johnson. "It was pretty easy travel, since you're only an hour and a half away from Hartford. … I actually enjoyed being able to get that opportunity and wanted to make the most of it."
|Selected to represent his country at the 2010 IIHF World Championship tournament, Chad Johnson did not disappoint Team Canada in net. He gave up one goal in 73 minutes of international action.|
Two nights after his NHL debut, he was back in Hartford, but the Rangers summoned him again a few days later, and he made his first NHL start on Jan. 7 at Atlanta. His performance that night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Thrashers was inspiring. He stopped 31 of 32 shots, including 12 saves in each of the first two periods. Early in the game, he made a stunning reach-back save to deny Rich Peverley. Johnson's stick caught the puck right at the goal line to deny a wide-open.
Bryan Little eventually denied Johnson a win by scoring in the fourth round of the overtime shootout, but the Rangers rookie had made a statement. He was given three more starts after that -- at St. Louis on Jan. 16, at Phoenix on Jan. 30 and at Colorado on Jan. 31. The last two starts came in back-to-back games with Lundqvist under the weather. After stopping 21 of 24 shots and being perfect over the final two periods of a 3-2 loss to the Coyotes, Johnson came back the next night to earn No. 2 Star honors in his first NHL victory at Colorado.
His 3-1 win over the Avs on Jan. 31 -- the Blueshirts' first victory at Denver since 1998 -- featured Marian Gaborik's first hat trick as a Ranger. Johnson did his part by stopping 34 of 35 shots, including 17 of 18 in the third period, where he had a shutout going until the game's final 7:21.
"The more you play, the more comfortable you're going to feel and the more confident you're going to be. That's sort of how I felt there at Colorado," said Johnson. "... It's such a relief to finally get that win over with, because some guys have to wait eight games, nine games or 20 games before they get their first win. Once you get that first win, you know you can win at that level."
It was a well-timed victory for Johnson, who went back to Hartford for the Olympic break and did not play for the Rangers again after the team claimed veteran Alex Auld off waivers on Feb. 27.
Back with the Pack, Johnson finished strong in starting 16 of Hartford's final 20 games and ending the year with a season-high five-game winning streak that nearly got his team into the playoffs.
Johnson ended the AHL season with a 24-18-2 record in 47 games. He had three shutouts, a 2.54 goals-against average, and .911 save percentage. He ranked among the game's Three Stars in nearly one of three starts -- a total of 14 selections -- and finished the season as strong as he began it despite the potential disruption of seven trips between New York and Hartford between December and February.
His big rookie year wasn't finished when the AHL season ended. Johnson was named the backup to Chris Mason for Canada's 2010 World Championship team. In Germany, he played parts of three games in relief of Mason and stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in 73:21 of total ice time against Latvia, Norway and Sweden.
"I just really wanted to take the most from that experience and the opportunity to represent Canada and be a part of the Worlds. I definitely just think it's going to help me," Johnson said. "...I just wanted to take the most positive things, out of that tournament, and I think I did. And that's going to set me up for a good summer that will set me up to have a good camp and next season."
There's no question the past 12 months have been an incredible journey for a player who was just hoping to get an opportunity at the pro level when the 2009-10 season began. His rapid arrival on the Rangers and Team Canada rosters were true signs that the wider hockey world has taken notice of Johnson, whose long-term NHL future appears to be getting brighter every day.