It’s Ironic that the sole representative from the Colorado Avalanche headed to the All-Star Game is a defenseman, not a forward. Erik Johnson, arguably Colorado’s best player in the first half of the season, is headed to Columbus. He’s a deserving all-star as well. He is the NHL’s leading goal scorer for defenseman, and he’s had somewhat of a break out season.
Colorado’s star forwards were expected to carry Colorado back to the playoffs this season. Hopefully the high scoring group would once again be able to gloss over any cracks at the back that Colorado has. It’s been a bad year for players like Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog. Duchene in particular has looked a shadow of the player he was last year. He seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence. Erik Johnson on the other hand has been spectacular. He’s never looked as confident in an Avalanche sweater as he does right now.
Johnson has already set a career high with goals half way through the season. With the pace he’s on he could reach 20 goals if he keeps scoring. But Johnson isn’t just having a good season because he’s scoring. He’s seemingly been given the all go from coach Patrick Roy to do whatever he needs to do to help the team. Certainly Roy has given Johnson a vote of confidence, putting him on the ice in every situation. He plays point on the powerplay, he kills penalties and Roy will throw him out on the ice in the most important defensive zone face-offs.
It’s not uncommon to see Johnson log over 25 minutes of ice time in a game. He’s hit 28 minutes on numerous occasions as well. Colorado, a team that isn’t popular with the advanced stats crowd, has actually improved their shots against totals as the season progresses. Partly because Roy abandoned the team’s infamous man marking system, but it’s also in part to Johnson’s superb play. He has room to improve though, there have been times were Johnson turned the puck over to easily in his own end, but these have been few and far between. He’s turning into an excellent skater. Not as good as some of the elite defenders in the game, and he’s not even the best skating defenseman on his team (that would be Tyson Barrie).
His improved skating has let him move the puck up ice well. He uses his size and his strength to protect the puck and generate offense. He’s dangerous pinching in too. His goal against Dallas on Saturday was a result of him retrieving the puck from Duchene in the corner and moving the puck to the middle himself. One of the more remarkable things about Johnson is that he very rarely gets caught up ice. He reads the play from the blue line almost perfectly this season. Defenders jumping into the play can turn a coach’s hair grey in a hurry, but Johnson seemingly always picks the perfect time to jump up.
#Avalanche D Erik Johnson the first defensive all star for COL since Rob Blake in 03-04
— Drew Spevak (@DrewSpevak) January 11, 2015
Colorado in the past decade have gone from a real powerhouse team to a major rebuild. Defense has, for Colorado’s front offense, been the hardest part of that rebuild. By no means is Johnson’s all-star selection an indication that Colorado is ready to be a defensive juggernaut like Chicago, for example. But on a team that so many have suggested to be one of the worst in their own end, it’s a real accomplishment for Johnson to be headed to the All-Star Game. He’s not in there solely because Colorado has to have at least one representitive. He’s going because, after all the talk about being a bust, he’s playing the best hockey of his career. He’s going because he deserves it.
Born and raised in Denver, I’m a writer covering the Colorado Avalanche. I have a degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University.