The Buffalo Sabres signed Owen Power after his sophomore season with the Michigan Wolverines and put him directly into the lineup. It appears as though they will have to wait another year for another top college defenseman. In his end-of-year availability today, general manager Kevyn Adams told reporters including John Vogl of The Athletic that Ryan Johnson is leaning toward a return to the University of Minnesota for his senior season.
While there was never any chance of the Sabres losing the rights to Power, a senior season for Johnson would certainly complicate his situation. Selected 31st overall in 2019, the 20-year-old defenseman can become an unrestricted free agent in August 2023, just a few months after his college season would come to an end. That at best puts the Sabres in a difficult negotiating position, and could potentially lead to them considering a trade of his rights at some point.
Technically, because he is a first-round pick, the Sabres would receive a compensatory selection in the second round (in the same draft position, meaning 63rd, now that there are 32 teams) if he decided not to sign and became an unrestricted free agent. While just leaning toward a return to college in no way guarantees that, you can see why the player may hesitate at joining the Sabres current depth chart.
With Power, Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, and Mattias Samuelsson (not to mention three first-round picks this year) looking like a locked-in top-four for years to come, there may not be a ton of playing time for some of the other young defensemen in the organization. Adams said during his availability that they will look around for a veteran this offseason to support the group, again taking some NHL playing time away from a potential prospect like Johnson.
Still, there is time to be used even if he does go back. Johnson will have a chance to compete for a national championship once again and improve on the 19 points he scored this season before making the jump to professional hockey.