While his teammates made a dramatic push toward a Southeast Division championship and then waged a seven-game playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Johnson was forced to watch. Not only games in which he did not dress - he even wasn’t allowed to join practices until either Olie Kolzig or newcomer Cristobal Huet put in their sufficient work and headed for the dressing room.
“It was tough to handle, but I think I did a good job of handling it professionally,” Johnson said. “I didn’t express my discomfort or anything like that. Everyone obviously knows I didn’t want to be on the back burner, but that’s where I was.”
Added Caps coach Bruce Boudreau: “You’ve got to give Brent so much credit. He took it, understood it, I hope he didn’t like it and I know he didn’t because no one likes to be part of a team for so many games and then all of a sudden you don’t feel part of the team.”
When the team acquired Huet from Montreal for a 2009 second-round pick at the trade deadline, the Caps had a predicament between the pipes - three goaltenders for two practice nets. Instead of rotating the goalies from practice-to-practice or during workouts, goaltending coach Dave Prior decided to make Johnson the odd man out.
“I made him the casualty in the situation, and it wasn’t because I was unhappy with him,” Prior said. “I told him if he were in the same position as Olie or Cris, I would have done the same for him. But by trying to cycle through three goalies in a practice, you’re depriving your starters of net time that they need. We were fighting to be in the playoffs, so we couldn’t afford for our goaltenders not to be as sharp as possible, and Brent lost out.
“Even though Bruce and [general manager] George [McPhee] were more compassionate to his situation, I said I’d rather have one unhappy goalie than three. We just had to keep him as ready as we could, and I though he dealt with it admirably.”
Once the season was over, the Caps were faced with another awkward situation. With both Kolzig and Huet slated to become unrestricted free agents, Johnson - with one more year on his contract - was the only goalie still on the roster. Kolzig made it clear he wasn’t returning, and then Huet spurned the Caps’ overtures to sign a longer and wealthier deal from Chicago on July 1.
The Caps quickly audibled and signed Jose Theodore to a two-year, $9 million deal. Johnson remained with the club, and is now back as the unquestioned No. 2 netminder.
“Obviously I had a little sourness, but never for the guys in this dressing room,” Johnson said. “I want to be [part of] this group. I think this group has the most potential that I’ve seen in a long freaking time, and I want to be part of that. I never for one moment wanted to be somewhere else.”
Sure, Johnson’s 2007-08 will be remembered for what transpired at the end of the season, but he was actually performing very well before the trade for Huet. Despite playing sparingly in the first half of the season, Johnson put together a string of quality starts and eventually began to earn more playing time.
By the time the Caps acquired Huet, Johnson had nearly forced a platoon with Kolzig.
“I think during all of Brent’s time here, there’s been more structure every year that’s he been building on in his game,” Prior said. “I think there’s been continued improvement.”
Added Boudreau: “After a while [last season], you play a game and he gets one goal against, you play another game and he has two goals against and then one goal against. You gotta open your eyes and say, ‘You know what, the consistency is there.’ That’s what we want out of him. … His demeanor is fabulous and I am counting on a big year from him.”