BRANDON — Most of the hockey world was a little surprised when the Lightning opted to sign Jonas Johansson this offseason. The 28-year-old goaltender was one of them, he admits. It was unexpected, but exciting, when his agent called him with the news Tampa Bay wanted him to back up Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“It’s a great organization. I was really excited when I heard there was some interest in having me coming here,” Johansson said last week after practice at TGH Ice Plex. “So, I was just super excited from the start and I’m super glad, super happy to be here and I’m going to make the most out of this opportunity.”
Coming off his best season since being drafted out of his native Sweden in 2014, Johansson has the talent but doesn’t fit the mold of recent Lightning backups. Last season, it was 38-year-old Brian Elliott, who had 14 years in the league before coming to Tampa Bay in 2021-22, playing behind Vasilevskiy.
Goaltending coach Frantz Jean admitted that with the Lightning payroll so close to the salary cap, the team is taking a “calculated risk” going with the younger, unproven backup.
But he said it is also the time in Vasilevskiy’s career to make that transition.
“The last probably three backups, we went with older guys. There was a reason for it. It was by design, because Vasy was so young and was coming into the league and we wanted him to have as much support as possible and a veteran voice beside him in the dressing room,” Jean said. “Now, you fast forward eight, nine, 10 years later, and Vasy is much older and didn’t need to have a veteran guy and that veteran voice.
“So, this is where the younger kids come in, and a guy like Jonas Johansson comes in and brings a different energy,” Jean continued. “He brings the up-and-comer energy and the kid that wants to learn and the kid that’s driven, that wants to become, down the road, a Vasy. So, it brings a little bit that new dynamic into the dressing room that we didn’t have in a long time, and that’s healthy.”
Johansson, signed to a two-year $1.5 million contract, has just 35 NHL games on his resume, going 11-13-4 with a 3.32 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.
The 61st overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2014 draft, he also played with the Panthers and Avalanche.
Johansson had his best season last year with Colorado, going 2-0-0 in three games, including two starts, stopping 68 of 73 shots. His .932 save percentage and 2.1 GAA were the best of his four seasons in the NHL. In 26 games in the AHL in 2022-23, he had a 2.33 GAA and 9.20 save percentage.
“Last year was really good,” Johansson said. “I was in a place where I liked where we lived. My family and I liked it off the ice, too. And I was healthy all year. We had a good team, a good group of guys. So, just a good year overall for me.”
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The Lightning also see potential to build off that year. They like Johansson’s size and mobility in the crease.
“He’s got really good feet, and that’s one thing that I always look at at a goaltender and as an organization,” Jean said. “There’s not that many 6-5 guys around playing in the minors. So, that was attractive to us. And he had a really good year in the minors last year, and when he played NHL games and played on a good team, he played well in the games he played.
“For us, I mean, with the cap situation we’re in, like, we’ve got to take some ... risks, and bringing in an unproven young goaltender is one. But in the type of prospect that he is, it is a calculated risk for us.”
Despite the trend across the NHL to cut back on goaltenders’ work loads, Vasilevskiy and the Lightning are not looking to cut down on the number of games he plays. Still, he admitted in May he was physically worn down at the end of last season.
Johansson knows his job is to make the Lightning comfortable with him in the crease when Vasilevskiy isn’t there and prove he belongs.
“I think it’s just about having good habits and being ready,” Johansson said. “... For me, like last year, I never know what’s going to happen or when the opportunities kind of show up. So, you’ve just got to be ready for it, and it’s going to be the same this year.”
Times staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.
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