Erik Johnson’s Road to Redemption

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When Erik Johnson was drafted 1st overall in 2006, St. Louis thought that they had found their next franchise defenseman. The Blues, once a consistent playoff contender (to the tune of 25 consecutive appearances in the postseason beginning in 1979 and ending in 2004), had dealt away cornerstone defenseman Chris Pronger to Edmonton only one year before drafting Johnson. Johnson had all of the skills to replace Pronger in St. Louis – the size, the offensive ability, the physical edge, and the hockey sense.

Johnson’s status as the best prospect at the draft table in 2006 wasn’t up for debate. He was universally preferred by scouts over the other top prospects, including Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, and Nicklas Backstrom.

There weren’t any knocks against Johnson. As an 18-year-old, he was already 6-4 and 220 pounds. He skated well, possessed a booming point shot, and was fundamentally sound in his own zone. The Blues hoped he would be the foundation of their club for the next 20 years. Johnson’s play on the ice reminded many of Pronger, and his quiet, understated personality off of it reminded many of another former Blues great – Al MacInnis.

However, less than five years after drafting Johnson, the Blues shipped him off to Colorado in a blockbuster trade. There were many reasons why the club deemed Johnson expendable – a lack of progression since his rookie season, a bizarre knee injury that he was struggling to bounce back from, and the emergence of Alex Pietrangelo.

Johnson has played parts of two seasons for the Avalanche. His skating is back to the level it was at before the knee injury. He is playing with much more confidence at both ends of the ice. He has embraced the role as a leader for a young Colorado squad, as well.

The Avalanche and Johnson agreed to a four-year contract extension earlier this summer. Johnson’s cap hit of $3.75 million is much lower than many of the players who were drafted behind him, including Staal ($6 million), Toews ($6.3 million), and Backstrom ($6.7 million).

The second contract in hockey used to bridge together a player’s rookie salary and a big pay day down the road. However, thanks to the lowering of the age a player becomes a free agent (which came out of the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement) and several offer sheets from former Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, teams are now forced to pay for potential and future production rather than a player’s proven worth. However, Johnson’s deal is a throwback to the old system. He is Colorado’s best defenseman, but far from the league’s elite. He isn’t worth $5 or $6 million at this point, even with a salary cap that may eclipse $65-70 million next season.

Colorado GM Greg Sherman did a great job getting the four year term. If Johnson completely levels off as a player, he is already a very solid top-four defenseman, and well worth the cap hit of $3.75 million (the $3.5-$4 million cap hit seems to be the going rate for a capable top-four defenseman nowadays). And if he manages to uncover more of his vast potential, the Avalanche have a top defenseman locked up for a very low cap hit through 2015-16.

Johnson’s career to date has been shaped by three significant events – the draft, the offseason knee injury in 2008, and the trade to Colorado in 2011.

The Top Pick

Columbus’s scouting staff was followed by hockey writer Gare Joyce leading up to the 2006 Draft for his sensational book “Future Greats and Heartbreaks.” Johnson wasn’t as prominently featured in the book compared to his peers, as the Jackets held the 6th overall selection and there was no chance that he was going to fall to that pick.

Columbus’s head of amateur scouting (at the time), Don Boyd, shared his thoughts on Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses in a pre-draft meeting.

“Size, skating, strength, shot.”

When pressed for any weaknesses, Boyd offered up some humour.

“Lack of experience in the NHL.”

The two statements above accurately reflect the consensus opinions of Johnson leading up to the draft. A big and mobile defensemen with few – if any – holes in his game had all 30 NHL clubs drooling.

Johnson excelled internationally for the Americans at the Under-18 and World Junior Championships, and the coach of the U-18 team, John Hynes, was a big fan.

“He’s kind of a new, hybrid type of player who fits the way the NHL is going with their rules. I think the thing that makes him pretty special is it’s not like he’s a defensive or offensive defenseman – he’s very good on both sides of the puck.”

Johnson’s gifts extended beyond the rink, too.

“He’s really respectful. He carries himself well… and he looks you in the eye and can talk on different subjects. He’s humble, polite, has a good sense of humour, but he’s pretty low key.”

Although that may read like an online dating profile, scouts do pay attention to how a player interviews and how he interacts with others. Johnson was highly regarded as a player and a person. He earned a spot on the World Junior roster that the Americans sent to Vancouver that winter. Most times underage players are given limited responsibilities (Johnson was 17 at the time), but he forced his way into a more prominent role very quickly.

“He was taken on the team as an under-ager, basically for experience and to play a limited role. In our first exhibition game… he almost took control of the game. He went, in the coaching staff’s mind, from the seventh or eighth defenseman spot to No. 1 or 2 by two games into the tournament.”

Johnson played only one season at the University of Minnesota before turning pro in the summer of 2007, just over a year after the Blues took him with the top pick.

His rookie season with the Blues was an impressive one. He led all Blues defensemen in goals (five) and points (33), had only 28 PIM, and ranked fourth in average ice time playing 18:11 per contest. The team was careful not to give him too much responsibility – he played a role typical of a young NHL defenseman – Johnson was matched up against the opposing third or fourth offensive units, and he started more shifts in the offensive zone compared to his teammates.

All advanced statistics were obtained from Behind the Net.

Corsi is the difference between all shots directed at net for and against at even strength. That is (shots+blocked shots+goals+missed shots for MINUS shots+blocked shots+goals+missed shots against). The purpose of the stat is to determine possession. It is, in fact, a proxy for “zone time”. A positive Corsi rate = more offensive zone time. Negative = more defensive zone time.

Relative Corsi is the difference in the Corsi ratings when a player is on the ice with when he is off the ice and is measured per 60 minutes of ice time.

Simply put, the higher the Corsi Rel QoC (Corsi Relative Quality of Competition) number, the higher the level of competition a player faces while he is on the ice. Generally, the better a defenseman in his own zone, the higher his number will be (but not always, as teams may want to utilize a defenseman more for his offensive abilities).

Johnson was second to Matt Walker in percentage offensive zone starts on the Blues back end. This is a very typical deployment of a rookie defenseman.

The Blues were extremely excited about what the future held for their franchise defenseman. His progression to the league’s elite was well underway. He had the size and strength of an NHL veteran, and the rest of his game was rounding into form too. Teammate Jay McKee on Johnson as a rookie:

“Where he has a huge advantage is his size. I know when i started, I was only 175 pounds; I was a string bean and I think the big difference is the colleges… are putting more focus on building the kids up.”

The Injury

We may never know the full truth as to what happened during a golf tournament late in the 2008 offseason, but what we do know is that Johnson’s 2008-09 season was completely wiped out, as he tore two ligaments in his right knee (including his ACL). Johnson was devastated. The Blues were as well, but they did their best to work around it. John Davidson was the club president at the time of the injury:

“In our business you get a few curveballs. This is a pretty good curveball. To say Erik is distraught would be using a kind word.”

Some speculated that Johnson was fooling around playing a game of golf cart polo (like polo but golf carts are used instead of horses). The truth was never revealed, and young defenseman began a gruelling rehabilitation process.

Even when he returned from the injury to start the 2009-10 season, Johnson wasn’t fully healthy. In fact, he wouldn’t be fully healthy until Christmas of 2010, over two years after sustaining the injury. He was traded from St. Louis early into the 2011 calendar year.

“The Avs got Johnson nearly three months [after Christmas of 2010], so essentially they have gotten the fully healthy version of Johnson that the Blues hadn’t had for a couple of years.”

To his credit, Johnson had a very strong  season in 2009-10 coming back from the knee injury. He led the Blues defensive group in goals (10), points (39), and finished tied with Eric Brewer for second among defensemen in average ice time, playing 21:26 per contest.

He still wasn’t being relied upon to face the top opposing forwards – the Blues coaching staff were utilizing his offensive abilities, and didn’t seem to trust him defensively yet.

Barret Jackman and Roman Polak played the difficult minutes, while Johnson continued to play against the opposing third or fourth lines. He and Colaiacovo saw the bulk of their shifts start off in the offensive zone – a big reason for Johnson’s offensive explosion.

Johnson still wasn’t being given the tough defensive assignments.

He entered the 2010-11 season with a lot of motivation. Although his development was back on track after the knee injury, he was becoming a forgotten man compared to other young defensemen around the league. The Blues weren’t prepared to commit to a long-term deal with him just yet, even after his 10-goal, 39-point performance. He signed a two-year, $5.2 million contract in the summer of 2010. His agent, Pat Brisson, was hoping for a longer term deal.

“Normally after two years, whether [a player] has offer sheet rights or not, the trend is to explore a longer-term deal. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Blues. So the course of the conversation changed a bit. This is perhaps a direction we weren’t intending to go down, but the Blues are looking for a shorter-term (extension).”

The Blues wanted to see if Johnson could continue to be a productive defenseman with increased defensive responsibilities. If he wanted the big bucks, he would have to prove himself at both ends of the ice.

The Trade

As the 2010-11 season began, Johnson appeared to have gotten his career back on track. His 10 goals and 39 points were both very solid numbers, although looking at the advanced stats we can see that the team still didn’t rely on his defensive abilities as much as many were led to believe.

Johnson’s play through the first few months of the season was adequate for a top-four defenseman, but he wasn’t taking over games or dominating in the way St. Louis had hoped he would. He was starting to be overshadowed by Pietrangelo, too.

The Blues and Avalanche dropped a bombshell on the hockey world on February 19, 2011. Johnson, along with veteran center Jay McClement and a 1st round draft pick, was shipped to Colorado in exchange for Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, and a 2nd round draft pick.

The Blues weren’t prepared to commit to Johnson for the long haul in the summer of 2010, and that reluctance combined with the emergence of Alex Pietrangelo led to the team entertaining trade offers for him. The trade made sense for both sides. Colorado added size, two-way ability, and a lot of upside to their defense. The Blues added a big young winger in Stewart, and a skilled offensive defenseman in Shattenkirk.

The old adage that you have to give up something of value to get something of value rings true here, but is very rare for the 1st overall draft pick to be traded less than five years after being drafted. When asked if it was difficult to move Johnson, Blues GM Doug Armstrong was succinct in his answer.

“Not really.”

Johnson was drafted as a two-way defenseman, but he played the role of an offensive defenseman in his first few years in the league. At times he controlled games with his size, strength, and puck moving ability, but he also struggled against skilled forwards and wasn’t a consistent physical presence in his own zone. Johnson’s 2010-11 season was split between St. Louis and Colorado, and his role was more defensively-oriented than in his first few NHL seasons (but not by much).

His zone starts were still pretty high relative to his teammates, but they were lower than in previous seasons.

He faced much tougher competition than in his first few years in St. Louis. His play with Colorado for the final few months of the 2010-11 season was solid, but not spectacular.

Johnson didn’t have a set defensive partner that season for either St. Louis or Colorado.

With the Blues:

Frequency Strength 2010-11 Line Combination
36.09% EV 4 BREWER,ERIC – 6 JOHNSON,ERIK
19.30% EV 28 COLAIACOVO,CARLO – 6 JOHNSON,ERIK
10.56% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 27 PIETRANGELO,ALEX

And with Colorado:

Frequency Strength 2010-11 Line Combination
27.35% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 44 WILSON,RYAN
20.64% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 4 LILES,JOHN-MICHAEL
16% EV 48 HUNWICK,MATT – 6 JOHNSON,ERIK

All line combinations were obtained from DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool.

Familiarity goes a long way in the success of a defenseman in the NHL, especially a young one.

Johnson burning his former club for a nice goal. For a big man he sure brings the puck to the slot in a hurry:

Something to Prove, Again

Johnson changed up his workout routine that summer, focusing more on speed and lower body strength.

“In the past, I really bulked up a lot and was a little too top-heavy. I’ve improved my footwork and foot speed. I think I’ve become more explosive and more powerful all around. I got a new trainer this summer.”

The offseason switch appeared to be working, as the Avalanche got off to a 5-1 start to begin 2011-12, thanks in large part to Johnson’s strong play. However, as the team began to struggle, so did Johnson. He was on the ice for 26 of the 65 goals that were scored against Colorado during the first 21 games of the season (or 40 percent). Mile High Hockey’s reasons for Johnson’s struggles:

“He almost always looked like he was trying to do too much with and without the puck. He and [partner Jan] Hejda never seemed to click, and with the… blockbuster trade still fresh in everyone’s minds, the media spotlight was still very much on him.”

Colorado’s season hit a low point following a 4-1 loss to San Jose on November 20th. The team was bag skated the next day by head coach Joe Sacco. During the skate, Johnson strained his groin, compounding an already miserable stretch of play for the big defenseman.

He missed a few weeks with the injury, but seemed like an entirely different player upon returning.

“His play drastically turned around from December on. He hung back and concentrated more on playing a strong defensive game instead of jumping into the play all the time. His passes… got better, simpler, and more on target. He never allowed his offensive contributions to outweigh his defensive responsibilities.”

In 2011-12, Johnson once again had a high offensive zone start rate. Johnson doesn’t get to choose where he starts, but the zone starts continued to be an indicator how his coaches wanted to best utilize him.

Hejda and O’Byrne played the tough minutes against top competition. Johnson played against the opposing team’s second and third offensive units.

Johnson took steps forward defensively in 2011-12, but he still wasn’t facing the top competition and was being given lots of opportunities to produce offensively. Let’s compare him to some of his peers.

Johnson saw similar zone starts to Shattenkirk, the defenseman he was traded for. He isn’t in the class of Pietrangelo or Doughty at either end of the ice, and this chart shows how those defensemen were given greater defensive responsibilities (especially Doughty).

In terms of quality of competition, Johnson once again is far back of Pietrangelo and Doughty. Shattenkirk was playing against the opposing third and fourth lines, as the Blues gave their top defensive assignments to Polak, Jackman, and Pietrangelo. The Avalanche trusted O’Byrne and Hejda over Johnson, and that will need to change in the near future if the club hopes of returning to contender status. Johnson simply has to become a defenseman that they are comfortable playing against any opposing players in any situation.

Once again, he did not have a steady partner on the back end.

Frequency Strength 2011-12 Line Combination
27.19% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 5 O’BRIEN,SHANE
17.40% EV 8 HEJDA,JAN – 6 JOHNSON,ERIK
13.47% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 27 QUINCEY,KYLE
12.87% EV 6 JOHNSON,ERIK – 44 WILSON,RYAN

Colorado head coach Joe Sacco on Johnson:

“The big thing for EJ is, when he keeps things simple and moves his feet, he’s a very effective player. He’s a big man who can move, but he gets himself in trouble when he’s planted. When he’s moving, skating, and he’s physical, he’s a difference-maker.”

Perhaps because he was placed in offensive situations from the beginning in St. Louis, Johnson often got in trouble by trying to force plays that weren’t there. With his size, strength, mobility, and head for the game, he has had greater success when he makes the safe, smart plays.

Johnson’s offensive production in 2011-12 was far from spectacular – four goals and 22 assists, but he did lead the team in points from a defenseman. Johnson’s shooting percentage was only 2.6 – he is far from the caliber of Jordan Eberle or Steven Stamkos with his accuracy, but that number is sure to increase.

To say he has faced his share of roadblocks in the first five seasons of his career would be an understatement. Players drafted after Johnson have already gone on to captain a team to the Stanley Cup (Toews), record a 100-point season (Backstrom), and develop into one of the best two-way centers in the league (Staal). However, as we see across all sports, development is nonlinear. Young players don’t always improve each season. There are ups and downs. In Johnson’s case, a few consecutive stumbling blocks threw him off course. However, he is still only 24 years old, and the Avalanche are a team on the rise. Johnson doesn’t want to be merely a solid NHL defenseman. With his skill set and size, it would be a disappointment if he didn’t develop into something special.

“I want to be a guy the coaching staff can use in all situations. When I came [to Colorado], [I was told] to go out and play, have fun and don’t think too much out there. I started to feel like the player that i had been in the past. I felt like i started to get my confidence back, and when I’m playing with confidence, (I) almost feel unstoppable.”

Colorado took a risk when they traded for Johnson. But the Blues may have taken a bigger risk by trading him away. Johnson’s progression to top defenseman is far from complete, but he’s headed in the right direction once again.

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  1. Pingback: CBA Debate: Contract Length and Salary Cap Hits « The Business of Hockey

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