This Could Be Erik Johnson’s Last Season in an Avalanche Sweater

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson is quietly putting together an impressive season. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound veteran has two goals, five assists, and a plus-9 rating in 18 games. While those are good numbers for a player on the blue line, they’re not great, especially compared to his teammate Cale Makar. But Johnson’s game isn’t based on offensive production.

On a defense made up of fast-skating and sharp-shooting finesse players — Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews — Johnson is old school. His 34 blocks and 38 hits lead the team by a wide margin, as he uses his size and ability to take away shooting lanes to keep opposing forwards off balance.

When the Avalanche traded Nikita Zadorov in the fall of 2020 and then Ryan Graves this past summer, Johnson became the only player on the team truly built for defense. Girard and Makar are both under six feet tall, and Toews, Ryan Murray, and Jack Johnson (no relation) are 6-foot-1. None of them play with the physicality of Erik Johnson.

Related: Avalanche Defense Needs to Prove it’s Physical Enough for Cup Run

Playing in his fifteenth NHL season, Johnson is also a mentor to the team’s relatively young defensive core. He has helped Girard, Makar, and now 20-year-old rookie Bowen Byram develop into world-class NHL defenders. With all this in mind, it’s a hard pill for fans to swallow that this might be Johnson’s last season in an Avalanche sweater.

Johnson A First-Overall Draft Pick

The St. Louis Blues selected Johnson first overall in the 2006 NHL Draft, a class that included Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom. The Bloomington, Minnesota native’s first season with the Blues was electric; he had 33 points (five goals and 28 assists) on a team that managed only 79 points in the standings, finishing second last in the Western Conference. 

Erik Johnson, St. Louis Blues
Erik Johnson during his time with the St. Louis Blues (Bridget Samuels

With expectations riding high for his sophomore campaign, Johnson took a page from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction playbook when his foot got caught between the accelerator and brake on a golf cart, causing him to tear two ligaments in his right knee. He missed the entire 2008-09 season. It may have been a freak accident, but it also foreshadowed a pattern of suffering injuries in the seasons that followed.

In a move that shocked many, Johnson was traded to Colorado midway through the 2010-11 season. Both teams were struggling (neither made the playoffs) and wanted to shake up their rosters. Johnson has been with the Avalanche ever since, making him the longest-tenured player on the team.

Johnson No Stranger to Injuries

From his knees to his shoulders to his head, Johnson’s body has taken a beating throughout his career, and it has cost him. During his 10 seasons with the Avalanche, he has played in 50 or more games only six times and in 70 or more games only four times. He lost all but four games of the Covid-shortened 2020-21 season due to a serious concussion.

It’s difficult for a big player who uses his body the way Johnson does to have a long career in the NHL. While he’s still effective, the relentless pounding has taken its toll. For the first time since joining the Avalanche, his average ice time has dipped below 20 minutes per game, to 18:30. By comparison, Makar is averaging 24:08, Toews 23:57, and Girard 22:09.

Avalanche Unlikely to Re-Sign Johnson When Contract Expires

At $6 million per year, Johnson is the fifth-highest paid player on the team, surpassed only by Mikko Rantanen ($9.25 million), Makar ($9 million), Gabriel Landeskog ($7 million), and Nathan MacKinnon ($6.3 million). His contract runs through 2022-23, meaning executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic will have to make a decision about Johnson next year. 

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Forwards Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, and Valeri Nichushkin, along with goaltender Darcy Kuemper, will become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season, and MacKinnon the following year. They are all higher priorities for Sakic than Johnson. Even if he agrees to a team discount, it seems unlikely the Avalanche will opt to retain him. Unless he announces his retirement, management will likely try to trade him or buy him out to get some value in return.

Unless Sakic can bring in another player of Johnson’s caliber to shore up the defense, trading him before the deadline would be a mistake. As the most physical member of a skilled blue line, every ounce of Johnson’s old-school style will be needed for the Avalanche to fulfill their Stanley Cup ambitions. But win or lose, this will likely be his last season in Denver.

The team is back in action on Wednesday to take on the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

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