DALLAS — Erik Johnson is rounding back into form after missing 11 games earlier in the season due to a concussion.
Unfortunately, the 25-year-old defenseman’s Colorado Avalanche have sunk to last in the Western Conference as of March 25 following a 1-6-0 stretch during which they were outscored 31-17.
“We haven’t been winning, which obviously makes it tough,” said Johnson, who had totaled four assists but hadn’t recorded a goal in 20 games. “Overall, I think there’s still room for improvement. The offense side hasn’t been where I’d want it to be. Defensively, I’ve been happy with my game, but I just think you can never be satisfied, you need to always keep improving.”
The time off due to the head injury was frustrating for the 6-foot-4, 232-pound native of Bloomington, Minn., but he’s battled back, playing a strong two-way game for the Avalanche since his return, ranking fourth on the club with 44 blocked shots while averaging 20:45 of ice time.
“He missed a bunch of games with that concussion that he was dealing with, so it’s been a little bit of a work in progress for him to catch up to speed,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. “His decisions are getting better, so I think his game is starting to come along.”
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room whenever Johnson becomes a topic of conversation.
That’s because, for better or for worse, Erik Johnson will always be remembered for being selected first overall by St. Louis in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, just the fifth American chosen that high.
It’s a label that Johnson has lugged around with him ever since.
“I think early in my career, it was a little bit of a hindrance,” admitted Johnson, who was traded from the Blues to Colorado on Feb. 8, 2011. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself and tried to go out and do everything by myself, but as my career has gone on, I’m in my sixth year, you just figure out what kind of player you are and you don’t do anything outside yourself.
“I’m a good two-way defenseman and can chip in offensively, good in my own zone. You just got to be happy with who you are and always strive to get better. You just got to find your niche, and that was the toughest part for me.”
Sacco believes that Johnson is starting to put the past behind him.
“He’s still a young defenseman, as far as not being in his prime yet,” Sacco pointed out. “He’s had some ups and downs, just like our team has had its ups and downs. But because of his size and where he was drafted, I think people maybe expect a little bit more from EJ, but we’re not concerned right now. I think sometimes that type of pressure could maybe affect him. He doesn’t need to worry about that, just go out and play. He’s a good, solid defenseman in the NHL.”
Johnson earned his high draft position after two outstanding seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program, scoring 16 goals and 49 points in 47 games in 2005-06.
Johnson thoroughly enjoyed his time at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based program and credits that experience with helping mold him into the player he is today.
“It was a great point of my career,” said Johnson, who went on to play one year at the University of Minnesota before joining St. Louis in 2007-08. “Without going there, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It’s a great program and it just teaches you a lot of discipline when you’re 16 years old. You have to move away from home and live with someone else, and you basically come to the rink every day at 2 p.m. and you’re out at 6, and then you have to do homework and you do the same thing every day. It’s tough for a young kid, and it’s not for everybody, but the kids that do it find a lot of success from it, I think.”
Johnson has worn the Team USA jersey on numerous other occasions, too, suiting up for the World Junior Championships in both 2006 and ’07. His performance in 2007 was legendary, becoming the first defenseman to lead the tournament in scoring, with four goals and 10 points in six games, earning top defenseman honors and helping the U.S. win the bronze medal.
He also represented the stars and stripes at the 2007 World Championships and of course, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, helping Team USA win silver.
“It was a great experience,” Johnson said of playing in Vancouver. “Any time you can win an Olympic medal and add that to your résumé, it’s a pretty neat accomplishment — one goal away from the gold medal. It was big for USA Hockey, and it was a great experience to be there, especially in Vancouver, a hockey-mad city.”
The involvement of NHL players for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, has not yet been decided, but if they go, Johnson hopes to be a part of the American team once again.
“It would be an honor to be there again,” said Johnson, who scored one goal in six games in Vancouver. “You never know how things are going to play out, but the only thing you can do is work hard. Obviously, I hope to be there, but my play will dictate that going forward.”
As long as he continues to play solid defensively, he’ll be in the mix, while also fulfilling the Avalanche’s expectations of him — and that’s really all that matters.
“He’s just got that raw skill where he’s a puck-moving D but he’s got that size that kind of makes him special, the way he skates,” said Colorado and Team USA teammate Paul Stastny. “You see guys skate like that but not guys that are 6-4 that skate the way he does.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.