The Colorado Avalanche are continuing to see Jack Johnson outplay the expectations placed on him at the start of the season, and considering the injuries that the team has seen, this has been even more important.
On Tuesday night, Johnson played his 1000th NHL game, and based on what the Avalanche are getting from him this season, he is not ready to leave the league just yet. Appreciating Johnson is all about understanding his salary cost, the role he is playing for the club, and the limitations within his game.
When the Avalanche signed Johnson to a deal at the start of the season, he was brought in to be the seventh defenseman on the roster, one that would be in the press box when the team was healthy. We’ve not really seen much of that so far, but what we have seen is Johnson on the ice far more than expected.
Johnson Fits Well on Second Pairing
The 35-year-old defenseman has thrived in the bigger role he currently has, playing well, and when you look at the current depth chart, he has risen above a couple of defensemen who were ahead of him when he signed. During Johnson’s 1000th game, a 5-3 victory over the Islanders, he continued to play on the second pairing with Samuel Girard.
In terms of ice time over the past few games, Johnson has been the fourth- or fifth-most used defenseman on the roster, so even though he is playing constant second pairing minutes, the Avs are not throwing him in too deep, which is perhaps why he has been successful.
One of the biggest reasons Johnson has been a success is because the Avalanche have not forced him to do anything he can’t. The team is lucky, with Girard on the second pairing, plus Cale Makar and Devon Toews on the top pairing, that they have three of the best puck-movers in the NHL on their back end. When Johnson is asked to do more, that is when the limitations in his game become exposed. The Avalanche deserve credit for how they are managing him right now, as well as the player receiving praise for his play.
At the start of the season, the questions were about whether Johnson could crack the lineup and make it into the top-six. Now we are talking about him being a perfectly serviceable defenseman who is currently stepping up and playing in the top-four.
Will Avalanche Trade Deadline Plans Move Johnson Down the Lineup?
While Johnson has done nothing wrong at all in the past few games, he could well be in for a smaller role in the near future. The Avalanche are expected to be busy before the trade deadline, and that could lead to more competition on the blue line.
The team has a decision to make regarding what they aim for, and that is going to depend on the availability of Bowen Byram. If he is able to play again this season, he will push Johnson down to the third pairing, where there will be competition from Ryan Murray and Erik Johnson, the pair who currently play on the third pair.
If Byram cannot come back, the Avalanche are likely going to make a second pairing defenseman their top priority before the deadline, so that player would be the one to relegate Johnson down the lineup.
Could Johnson Re-Sign With the Avalanche Next Season?
While we still have a lot to watch this season, and a potentially long playoff run to come, Johnson has stated his case for being a potential candidate to return on the blue line next season. If the team is looking at what they have at the moment, then based on Johnson’s play and his durability, he is currently a better option than Murray.
Both players are UFAs this summer, and while Murray is younger, there is a big difference in salary, which could be vital, given that the Avalanche are likely to be tight to the cap for years to come. Murray currently earns $2 million per year, while Johnson makes $750,000 per year. Given that Johnson will turn 36 during next season, he is unlikely to ask for a big raise, if anything at all.
Murray has played just 28 games, compared to 50 played by Johnson, so he also wins on durability, something that has plagued Murray for a large part of his NHL career. We have a long way to go before the Avalanche finalize plans for their defense next season. But given what we have seen from Johnson so far, he appears to be a stronger candidate than Murray for a return to Denver.
Craig Jones is a freelance NHL writer from the UK, covering the Colorado Avalanche. Watching the NHL from afar, Craig has followed the Avs for more than two decades, and wrote about them for almost one. To get the UK perspective of the NHL and everything Colorado, follow Craig on Twitter @craigjones29.