Theme: “you still here?”
Brent Johnson’s season ended after gutting out a 7-4 win over Ottawa on February 1st. It was his first start in eight games, only his third in 16 games. His injured hip (an injury dating back to a November 12th game against Carolina) just would not let him continue any further, and he underwent surgery, ending his season.
It was a most unfortunate end for Johnson's season given his performance to date. His ten-game segments in an abbreviated role suggest that he was on his way to his best season since arriving in Washington, perhaps his best since he won 34 games for the St. Louis Blues in 2001-2002…
In his first three segments he was 9-4-2, 2.36, .922, and had supplanted number one goalie Jose Theodore for a time, playing in five straight games in early November, ending with that hip injury that took him out of a game against Carolina. In 15 appearances he had allowed more than three goals only once.
After that, though, Johnson was obviously playing hurt – 3-2-0, 4.09, .870. In the only appearance in which he allowed fewer than three goals, he had come into the game in relief of Jose Theodore, playing in less than nine minutes before Theodore would return in a wild, come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers on December 23rd.
Even with all that, though, Johnson’s season had a Jekyll and Hyde quality to it. He was undefeated in regulation at home (9-0-1) with a 2.08 GAA and .932 save percentage. But he was 3-6-1 on the road, 3.65, .882 on the road. He was 11-3-2 against Eastern Conference teams, 2.62, .919. Against the West – 1-3-0, 3.52, .860.
When we looked at “benchmarks” by positions two years ago, we said this of Johnson…
“Playoff aspirants can’t afford to give away games when the number one
goaltender isn’t on the ice.”
In his previous three years with the Caps, Johnson fought hard, but there were a lot of games that just got away. He was 22-35-10 in his first three years with the Caps, generally backstopping a team that wasn’t very good. In 2007-2008 – his third year in that set – he improved to 7-8-2, and that was on a team that didn’t make the playoffs until Game 82 of the regular season.
This year, he was providing solid, even superior efforts when called upon, especially when Jose Theodore struggled early. That his season ended prematurely was one of those twists of luck that might have a player asking, “why now, why me?” But Johnson doesn’t impress us as that sort of player, and it is that sort of temperament that makes him well suited to the role he plays on this team. Going forward, the question will be whether he gets to play that role for the Caps. With the performance of Semyon Varlamov in the playoffs, a long look will be given to the youngster as a backup (at the very least) next season. He, with Michal Neuvirth, who cemented his own place among goalies-in-waiting with his Calder Cup performance, is the future of the Caps. That future seems to be rushing forward.
But Johnson still seems to have fuel in the tank, assuming he comes all the way back from hip surgery. If the Caps were to move Jose Theodore, Johnson could be a more-than-adequate backup for a Varlamov. However, there is considerable risk in turning over the keys to a rookie – and Varlamov will be a rookie – goaltender. Can Johnson fill in for long stretches if he struggles?
Those are matters to be pondered another day. For today, and this season, Brent Johnson did almost everything one could ask of a backup goaltender. When healthy, he was arguably the best goaltender on the roster. And even after he was injured, he fought gamely to give the Caps a chance when called upon.