MINNEAPOLIS — Rogers Arena in Vancouver was emptying out on Friday night, June 21, as the final few picks in the NHL Draft’s first round were being announced. But thankfully, Ryan Johnson and his family had stuck around.
With the 31st and final pick in round one, Johnson, a defenseman from Southern California and a future Minnesota Gopher, heard his name called by the Buffalo Sabres. He was the first of six future Gophers, and one current member of the team, picked this weekend. The seven total Gophers is shy of the school record, set in 2007 when they had nine, but it is the most drafted since then.
Johnson got a hug from his father Craig, who skated for the Gophers in the early 1990s and for a decade in the NHL, then headed to the stage where he donned a blue and gold Sabres jersey. Craig was selected early in the second round in the 1990 draft by the St. Louis Blues.
“His dad went 33rd, so the family battle was on and Ryan beat him by two, going 31st. It’s a good story there,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who was monitoring the draft from Colorado where he is working at a hockey camp. “Some people had him in the first round, and Buffalo stepped up and grabbed him, so we’re really happy for him.”
It was the second time in the past three years that Buffalo has picked a Gopher in round one, after the Sabres nabbed forward Casey Mittelstadt eighth overall in 2017.
“I think I grew a lot defensively in that part of my game. I think that aspect carried over and was a big part of my success,” Johnson said, surrounded by reporters at one of the podiums set up in the arena. After helping the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede to their league’s playoff title this season, Johnson was ranked 36th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, so for him to be picked 31st surprised a few people.
“Very good athlete, very good skater, has that ability to play well in his defensive zone against other teams’ top players,” said Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. “But then he also has the sense of a puck-moving ability. When we talk about what our team eventually wants, how our team eventually wants to play when we’re successful, it’s our defensemen joining the rush, getting pucks up to our talented forwards, and we really think Ryan fits the bill.”
Botterill, who was a college standout at Michigan, went back to the Dinkytown-bound talent well later, picking future Gophers forward Aaron Huglen with the 102nd overall pick.
When the second round began on Saturday, another future Gophers defenseman, Jackson LaCombe, didn’t have to wait long to hear his name called. The Anaheim Ducks picked LaCombe 39th overall.
After Huglen — who will spend next season with the Fargo Force of the USHL — went to Buffalo, future Gophers defenseman Mike Koster was picked by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Montreal Canadiens selected future Gophers forward Rhett Pitlick, the brother of Rem Pitlick, who led the Gophers in scoring last season and signed with the NHL’s Nashville Predators in March.
In Round 6, the Dallas Stars grabbed the only current Gopher to be drafted when they selected defensemen Ben Brinkman. He played in all 38 Gopher games as a freshman, scoring a goal and adding six assists.
In the seventh and final round, former Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, now of the Philadelphia Flyers, picked 2019 Mr. Hockey winner Bryce Brodzinski from Blaine with the 196th pick.
“It’s very exciting for our program. To see this many guys selected is great. It was a great two days for us, no question,” said Motzko.
The seven selections ties 2006, when the Gophers had four players — Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo and David Fischer — picked in the first round.
On June 18, the Gophers announced an 11-player signing class for the 2019-20 season which included Johnson, LaCombe and Brodzinski. Pitlick and Huglen have committed to the U of M but have not yet signed national letters of intent, so Gopher coaches are not allowed to comment on them, per NCAA rules.
Gopher Hockey Players at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft
Round 1: Ryan Johnson, D (31st overall to the Buffalo Sabres)
Round 2: Jackson LaCombe, D (39th overall to the Anaheim Ducks)
Round 4: Aaron Huglen, F (102nd overall to the Buffalo Sabres)
Round 5: Rhett Pitlick, F (131st overall to the Montreal Canadiens)
Round 5: Mike Koster, D (146th overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs)
Round 6: Ben Brinkman, D (173rd overall to the Dallas Stars)
Round 7: Bryce Brodzinski, F (196th overall to the Philadelphia Flyers)