One year ago Thursday, Brent Johnson made his debut in goal for the Washington Capitals. With the Carolina Hurricanes holding a commanding 6-2 lead midway through the third period, Caps coach Glen Hanlon inserted Johnson into the game, giving starter Olie Kolzig the rest of the night off. It was a baptism by fire that would continue for a while.
The Canes outshot the Caps 21-2 in the third period of that Oct. 12 game. The next night found the weary Caps playing their sixth game in nine nights, after having concluded the preseason with three games in three nights. Johnson started that game, facing the New York Islanders. The Isles nicked Johnson for two goals on their first two shots of the game, and three goals on the first five shots. Johnson settled down thereafter, finishing with 44 saves on 49 shots faced in a 5-3 Washington loss.
Less than 10 days after joining the Capitals, Johnson had set a team record for most saves by a goaltender in his first start as a Capital. He had also obliterated his personal single-game best of 35 saves in a contest.
When he was claimed off waivers from Vancouver on Oct. 4, 2005, Johnson joined his fourth NHL team in a span of 19 months. Once a rising star in the NHL nets, Johnson was in the throes of a lasting slump. And he had suddenly and unexpectedly been thrust into a roomful of new teammates with few familiar faces.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy situation, but the guys made it easy,” he says now, recalling his rocky start with the Caps last season. “The first guy I met coming here was Bryan Muir. And I had known Jeff Halpern
from one meeting at a USA Olympic camp, and that was the extent of it. But the guys made the adjustment period very easy for me. Going in to Vancouver I had the same problem; it was a different training camp for me. It took a bit if getting used to, but the guys here really helped make it simple.”
“Simple” is not a word you would use to describe Johnson’s career path. He broke into the NHL in 1998-99, going 3-2 with a 2.01 GAA and a .921 save pct. in six late season outings with the St. Louis Blues. Johnson was one of five netminders employed by the Blues that season; Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr and ex-Cap Jim Carey were among the others.
Johnson spent the 1999-00 season with Worcester of the AHL, his third year with the St. Louis farm affiliate. He was a training camp surprise in 2000-01, making the Blues roster and splitting the netminding chores with Roman Turek. St. Louis liked what it saw from Johnson, so much so that it traded Turek to Calgary and anointed Johnson as the team’s No. 1 guy in the nets for 2001-02.
A third generation NHLer (he is the son of former NHL netminder Bob Johnson and the grandson of former NHL center and Hockey Hall of Famer Sid Abel), Johnson had a storybook season for the Blues in 2001-02. He won 34 games, the third highest single-season total in club history. He reeled off a franchise record 10 straight wins in January of 2002, and finished eighth in the league with a 2.18 GAA.
There were more heroics in the playoffs. He blanked the Chicago Blackhawks in three straight games, becoming the first goaltender in NHL history to record shutouts as his first three career playoff wins.
Despite his stellar season, Johnson never really felt like he was the clear-cut No. 1 netminder in St. Louis.
“I started games in my second year in St. Louis,” he says, “but it wasn’t clear that I was the starter. I played close to 60 games [in 2001-02], but it was more like, ‘You win, you stay.’”
Johnson didn’t get much of a chance to “win and stay” in 2002-03. A high ankle sprain caused him to miss the first third of the season. He went 5-2-2 in his first nine starts after coming off injured reserve, but went 9-9-2 in his next 21 starts. The Blues, never noted for their patience with goaltenders, hedged their bets at that point. St. Louis made a deal to obtain goaltender Chris Osgood from the New York Islanders at the NHL’s March trading deadline.
One of seven different goaltenders employed by the Blues in 2002-03, Johnson started only four more games for the Blues after Osgood’s arrival. Osgood started all seven postseason games as St. Louis squandered a 3-1 series lead and bowed to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Johnson started the following season in St. Louis, but was a backup to Osgood. He won his first two starts, but then slipped into a slump that would stretch for almost two years. Midway through the campaign, Johnson was reassigned to Worcester. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had played his last game for St. Louis.
He played in only 143 games for the Blues, but ranks fifth on the team’s all-time wins list with 76 victories.
“I got to a point in St. Louis where I wasn’t playing well, but I knew I wasn’t,” admits Johnson. “I knew I was letting in bad goals; it wasn’t like I was shrugging it off and saying, ‘Oh, we’ll get ’em next time.’ And I was getting hard on myself. But I was also getting pulled. And every time they scored a goal on me in St. Louis, I started looking over at the bench. Every goal, whether it be a good goal or a bad goal. I think it was a combination of me being hard on myself, my family wanting me to do well and me just not getting it done. It was just a combination of things. But I was definitely hardest on myself. I have never felt as bad as I did back then.”
On Mar. 4, 2004, Johnson was dealt to Phoenix in exchange for well-traveled veteran Mike Sillinger. In his first game with the Coyotes, Johnson stopped 30 of 31 shots in a game against Minnesota. He was named the game’s No. 1 star in a 1-1 tie. Two weeks later, he beat the Wild in Minnesota. It would prove to be his lone win as a Coyote.
After the lockout, Johnson signed as a free agent with Vancouver, figuring he would back up Dan Cloutier for the Canucks.
“Phoenix told me they weren’t going to pick up my option, and I was a little bit frustrated with them,” he says. “I went to Vancouver and I thought I was fine. I thought I had a pretty good training camp for myself after being off for so long. But obviously I didn’t get anywhere near what I could do until the end of [2005-06].”
The Canucks decided to go with Alexander Auld as their backup, and waived Johnson. On the recommendation of Washington goaltending coach Dave Prior, the Capitals claimed Johnson and brought him in as the backup to longtime starter Olie Kolzig.
Johnson’s first few weeks as a Capital were difficult. Besides adjusting to a new city, integrating himself into a new locker room and getting himself acclimated to new teammates, he continued to struggle on the ice.
From November of 2003 to December of 2005, Johnson endured a stretch in which he went 3-14-3 with a 3.39 GAA and an .893 save pct.
“It was the mental side of things,” he says, remembering his lengthy struggle to find his game. “I think being off so long [during the lockout] hurt me a lot. I wasn’t where I wanted to be. The contrast from there to here is that I ended [2005-06] where I wanted to end it, helping our team win games. It’s a big difference. I feel comfortable, I know everyone, and I have buddies on the team. It’s night and day. And it’s really important for me, when I get a chance to play, to have a sharp game and not try to do too much. That’s what I was doing when I first got here. I was trying to go out there and throw it all on the line and not think about it, and I ended up hurting myself. [The opposition was] scoring goals that they normally wouldn’t if I was sitting back and being more patient. That’s the main thing I have to do now, just use more patience in my game.”
Patience paid off for the man known to his teammates as “Johnny.” He played his best in the second half of 2005-06, picking up seven of his nine wins after the midway point of the season. Johnson was 5-3 with a 2.40 GAA and a sparkling .940 save pct. in 10 appearances (nine starts) after the NHL’s Olympic break last season.
The baptism by fire never ended, either. When he arrived in Washington, Johnson had played in 151 NHL games, and had never made more than 35 stops in a single game. He made 35 or more stops in eight of his 23 starts with Washington last season.
Johnson credits his positive attitude for his on-ice turnaround, and believes it is the main reason the Caps resigned him for the 2006-07 season.
“Last year when I was kind of going through the same thing at the start of the season, it made it easier that I wasn’t the starter,” he relates. “Because I knew when I got my chance I was just going to try to do the best I could and help the guys try to win. I think if I would have done poorly as the starter, I would have gotten a lot more frustrated with myself. I kept my head up, I kept an upbeat attitude in the locker room and I never let it show. I think the way I was in the dressing room was a huge part of me signing back here. I think that’s an important part of the game.”
Johnson’s nine wins were the most ever recorded by a backup in Kolzig’s eight seasons as the starter. With Kolzig now closer to his fortieth birthday than his thirtieth, it is reasonable to expect his workload to wane a bit. He has averaged 66 starts a season over the last eight campaigns, but his 58 starts last year stands as his lowest total during that span. The Caps can reduce Kolzig’s workload slightly because they have confidence in Johnson’s ability.
“You saw the way Johnny played at the end of the year last year,” says Kolzig. “If we can somehow get a rotation going where I play 50 and he plays 30 or whatever, in the long run I think that might be ideal. Johnny showed that he can play and he played very well. I am glad that he signed [with Washington]. Not only is he a good goaltender, but he is a terrific person in the dressing room and he is part of the glue that kept our team together last year.”
Johnson knows his role in Washington, and he embraces it.
“I know Olie is going to play the majority of the games,” he says. “When I get a chance, I’ve got to play well for these guys. They’re like brothers to me. Everyone is so close, and we’re like a tight-knit family. I think it’s important for me to keep that up in the dressing room, but when I play, on the day of the game, I am a totally different guy. I take things way more seriously than what I would. You still have to go out there if you are not playing and be ready for the game, be loose and everything.”
On Oct. 12 of this season, Johnson is expected to be in goal for the Caps when they visit Minnesota. One year after his debut in a Capitals uniform, Johnson is part of what is arguably the best goaltending duo the Caps have had in more than a decade. It’s a remarkable turnaround from where he was a year ago at this time.