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Champions: Ryan Johnson and Sioux Falls Stampede to USHL victory

USHL rookie and Buffalo Sabres first-rounder takes the reins in Sioux Falls, leading the Stampede to the title.
Dan Hickling/Hickling Images

Dan Hickling/Hickling Images

By the time the 2018-19 season had ended, the Sioux Falls Stampede were United States League champions, having staged a spectacular run through the Clark Cup playoffs, losing only one game as the No. 3 seed out of the Western Conference.

The team took a similar path as that of arguably their best player, defenseman Ryan Johnson. When the season started, Johnson, a six-foot, 170-pound left-hander, was a raw prospect with plenty of talent and potential but some rough edges to smooth out in his game. By year’s end, he was a key player on a championship team, showing himself ready for the college level and worthy of Buffalo's 31st overall draft pick.

If the USHL is a development league, it lived up to that reputation in getting Johnson to where he is today. A 17-year-old Minnesota commit who played for Sioux Falls this season after spending 2017-18 on the Anaheim Jr. Ducks U-16 squad, Johnson was the Stampede’s third-round pick in 2017 and made his USHL debut amid a fair amount of hype.

He’s the son of Craig Johnson, himself a former Golden Gopher who played 557 NHL games across 10 seasons and was once traded for Wayne Gretzky. Craig spent most of his career playing for the Los Angles Kings and still lives in California today, where he coaches youth hockey and works specifically on skill development. Ryan grew up in Irvine, Calif., and surely benefited from the teachings available to him from his father.

Still, Stampede coaches weren’t certain what they’d get from a 17-year-old USHL rookie. But Johnson impressed them more and more as the year went on. “He came in highly touted, so we had pretty high expectations,” said Stampede coach Scott Owens. “But because of his age we just kind of let it play out to see what happened. I was a little surprised how good he was defensively and how easily he could adapt to better competition. But I was not surprised by his skill package or his overall game.”

That skill package is centered around what one might call a finesse game. Johnson is a fast skater and adept passer. He moves the puck quickly and easily through transition and can catch opponents sleeping while leading the breakout. He’s a decent finisher at the net, too, though indications are he’s only scratched the surface of his scoring ability. And Johnson’s work on the defensive end is considered advanced for his level of experience.

But it took some time for Johnson to find his groove in a league of mostly older players. It helped that he didn’t need to carry the load himself on the blueline, with Max Crozier, Matt Kessel and others providing Johnson with capable partners while happy to act as mentors. “When he came here he was pretty raw, but he really improved as the year went on,” said Jim Olander, the Stampede’s longtime play-by-play caller and team president. “He’s really skilled, and obviously he has the bloodlines. He probably showed more improvement from the beginning of the season to the end than anyone.”

Johnson finished with six goals and 25 points in 54 games and added another eight points in the Stampede’s 12-game playoff run, where he was a key factor in Jaxson Stauber’s MVP goaltending.

Though he won’t turn 18 until July 24, he’s expected to join the Gophers for 2019-20. “I definitely think he’ll be an NHL player,” Owens said. “He’s got the skill set and the drive and desire. He needs to get stronger and physically mature, but the thing is, I know this is cliche, but he has so many of the things you can’t teach.

“He’s got the innate ability to get out of his own end, to get the puck to the right person, to see the play in front of him. He’s an outstanding player. His game translates to both the college game and today’s NHL.”

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