By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Ryan Johnson didn’t notice it, of course. New draft choices aren’t aware such things, since it’s only been a few days since he became a first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres.
But when Johnson and fellow first-round pick Dylan Cozens turned up at the KeyBank Center on Tuesday to meet the local media for the first time, Johnson had a ghost by his side.
That ghost, of course, was the spirit of Ryan O’Reilly.
You may have heard about the trade of O’Reilly by the Sabres to the St. Louis Blues about a year ago. O’Reilly, who was considered by most to be the best all-around player on the Sabres’ roster at the time, was dealt to the Blues for Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, a second-round draft choice in 2021, and a first-rounder in 2019 – which now translates to Johnson.
The deal didn’t look too good for Buffalo earlier this month when O’Reilly picked up the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs – just after his new team had won the Stanley Cup. And it looked a little worse when O’Reilly was named the Selke Trophy winner as the best defensive forward in the league.
Meanwhile, Berglund left the Sabres in midseason to go back to Sweden, Sobotka left everyone wondering what the Sabres saw in him, and Thompson only showed a few flashes that he’d be anything close to special as a pro. Maybe Thompson will take a leap forward soon. But in the meantime, Johnson remains the best hope that the Sabres can salvage something of the transaction – and avoid the distinction of being part of one the most one-sided deals (the wrong way, I might add) in Sabre history. The 17-year-old will be linked with O’Reilly from now on, which isn’t too fair but it is reality.
Johnson is not going to have an opinion about his status yet; he can only play his best in the years to come and see what happens. General manager Jason Botterill isn’t going to say that he will root extra hard for Johnson to develop, because he wants every pick to do well. And if the more experienced Sabres don’t do better in the relatively near future, Botterill won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of Johnson’s labors.
We’ll get our first look at Cozens, Johnson and some of the other Sabre prospects this week at Harborcenter. Both players had similar reactions to their arrival in Buffalo. They were in Vancouver on Friday night, and after their names were called they turned up in a place thousands of miles from their homes (Cozens is famously from Whitehorse in the Yukon, while Johnson comes from Irvine, California) – meaning in a sense that both beat some long odds to be here.
“Just getting a tour of the dressing room and being in the city, just walking around and people recognizing me – it’s pretty cool,” Cozens said. “I’m starting to live my NHL team. It’s a quick turnaround. I’ve been relaxing a little bit the last two days. I’m letting everything settle in and enjoying it. “
“It’s been unbelievable. It’s really exciting,” Johnson said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to the future.”
The two first-rounders do have different paths in front of them. Cozens was considered one of the best players available. The Hockey News ranked him as the third-best prospect entering the draft, so the Sabres may have gotten a bargain by taking him seventh. At 6-foot-3, he could develop into the type of skilled power forward that every team likes to have. Cozens also represents the potential to move eventually into the No. 2 center spot behind Jack Eichel – a position that Casey Mittelstadt has an eye on as well. We’ll see how that shakes out in the future, but it appears that the team will have options down the road.
As for Johnson, his immediate future is already set. He’ll be playing at the University of Minnesota next season. That will give him time to develop, and it’s something of a contrast to Cozens – who knew he’d be given a long look at some team’s roster at an NHL training camp come September.
Still, Johnson is going to have the tag of “first round pick” next to his name for the rest of his life. How many of us can say that?
“Obviously, it’s kind of cool to say, but I’m still the same player,” he said. “If I went in the second round, I’d still be the same player. So for now, it’s putting in work and developing as a person and a player.”
The Sabre prospects will work out for the next three days, and the sessions are open to the public. A three-on-three tournament will be staged on Saturday, but that event will be restricted to season-ticket holders who reserved tickets in advance.
Cozens and Johnson will be the centers of attention, of course, but you might be able to pick out Johnson without a program. He’ll be the one carrying a shadow behind him.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)