Chad Johnson seizes long-awaited chance in NHL 'dream job'

Chad Johnson says he was never given the chance to be a No. 1 goaltender in his first five NHL stops. Joining his hometown Calgary Flames as a free agent on July 1 presented another opportunity for Johnson, and he has flourished in a starting role.

Well-travelled goalie comes home, earns starting role with Flames

Flames goalie Chad Johnson, right, has wrested away the No. 1 role from Brian Elliott this season. The Calgary native boasts a 2.04 GAA and .931 save percentage in 16 games to rank sixth and fourth, respectively, among NHL starters. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For as long as Chad Johnson can remember, he's never been handed anything in his hockey career.

He didn't garner much attention in Calgary's minor system, even when matched against fellow future NHL goalie Devan Dubnyk.

He was never highly touted and always had to earn the respect of his teammates, from his days in the Alberta Junior Hockey League through his four seasons at the University of Alaska. In 2006, Johnson was Pittsburgh's fifth-round pick at the NHL draft but never played a minute for the Penguins before he was traded to the New York Rangers three years later.

The Saskatoon-born netminder posted strong numbers in the American Hockey League but the Rangers didn't want a 23-year-old sitting on the bench while Henrik Lundqvist played 70 games a season. It was the same story for Johnson playing behind fellow No. 1s Mike Smith in Phoenix (2012) and Tuukka Rask in Boston (2013) after signing on as a free agent.

"Some people get situations handed to them for different reasons and other guys really have to work for them and put their time in," Johnson told CBC Sports over the phone. "If you're making starter money, you get that opportunity, regardless of what the backup does."

On Thursday night, Johnson made a fifth straight start for the Flames, stopping 27 shots to key a 2-1 overtime win at Arizona, the team's fifth victory in a row to move to within one point of the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks.

You don't get recognition if you're only playing every two weeks. It takes the right team and the right person to believe in you.— Flames goalie Chad Johnson on GM Brad Treliving

Last season, Johnson appeared in a career-high 45 NHL games for Buffalo but it probably wouldn't have happened if starter Robin Lehner wasn't sidelined for a stretch by injury.

Johnson, who grew up in Calgary, gained much-needed confidence by winning six of nine starts in the final three weeks of the season to add 22 victories, a 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage to his resume entering free agency.

"Johnny was good all year and didn't surprise anybody when he played as well as he did," Sabres defenceman Cody Franson recalled to CBC Sports. "If you scored on him, he tried to figure out what he did to give you that hole. He had a great work ethic and attitude."

Said Johnson: "You don't get recognition if you're only playing every two weeks. It takes the right team and the right person to believe in you."

Enter Brad Treliving, Flames general manager, who was GM of the Phoenix Coyotes' AHL affiliate in Portland when Johnson sported a 3.00 GAA and .903 save percentage in 34 games for the Pirates in the 2012-13 season.

Johnson, who drew interest from "a bunch" of teams before the July 1 NHL signing season, was intrigued by Treliving's vision of building a team from the goalie out.

"You can have skilled players, but if they don't get along and have the right mindset, it doesn't matter," said Johnson, who signed a one-year contract with Calgary on July 1 worth a reported $1.7 million US.

A week earlier, Treliving sent two draft picks to St. Louis for goalie Brian Elliott, who had stints as the Blues' starter over five seasons and was billed as the answer to the Flames' goaltending problems. Like Johnson, he would be an unrestricted free agent following the 2016-17 campaign.

Elliott, who took playing time from Jake Allen in the last year's playoffs and was set to make $2.7 million in the final year of his deal, broke camp with the Flames as first-year head coach Glen Gulutzan's starter. But he struggled early on, losing his first three starts and posting a .898 save percentage in October.

Elliott lost his grip on playing time when he allowed five goals on 39 shots in a 5-0 loss to the hometown Los Angeles Kings on Nov. 5. Johnson has made 14 of the past 18 starts and won nine times, highlighted by a career-high three shutouts, becoming the first Flames goalie with three shutouts in a calendar month since Fred Brathwaite in December 1999.

'I knew I had more in me'

Johnson went 7-2-1 with a .939 save percentage in November and boasts a 1.98 GAA and .932 save percentage in 17 games overall to rank fourth and third, respectively, among goalies with at least 15 starts.

"When you're playing all the time," he said, "the routine is easy and everything comes naturally. And there's no better feeling than a winning hockey locker room."

Watching a Calgary outfit climb into playoff position "a young group that wants to get better," has been as satisfying for Johnson as the increased playing time.

"If I was content just being a backup goaltender, I would have stuck around with the first team … but I knew I had more in me," he said. "It's fun being with a youthful team in Canada, having my family and friends here, being part of the Calgary Flames, which was my dream job.

"I've never believed I couldn't do something," continued Johnson. "Somebody has to be the starting goalie of the Calgary Flames and it comes down to who wants it more and who's going to put the work into doing it."

Right now, that's Johnson.


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