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Checking Out Erik Johnson

Erik Johnson is a big guy. At 6'4" and 236 pounds, the defenseman from Bloomington, Minnesota, is an imposing figure on the ice. You would expect him to be the tough one on the team, ready to take out anyone who looked at him wrongly. However, the 22-year-old is a skills-first kind of player who puts his game above all else. He won't back down from a fight on the ice, and he's willing to step up to defend a teammate or send a message; he'd rather score goals or prevent them, though, and it's something he happens to be pretty good at doing.

In 2006, Johnson became only the 5th American-born player to go first in the NHL draft. That's an impressive feat, especially considering the 2nd and 3rd selections that year were Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews, respectively. So how did he get there? What made the St. Louis Blues say, "He's the one"?

The scouts noticed Johnson's skills early on. At 14, he was already drafted by the WHL. He knew he wanted to take the college route, though, so he opted to stay in high school and play for the Academy of Holy Angels. In the 2003-2004 season, he had 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 31 games, helping his team to go 25-5-1 and win the Conference Championships. He also attended the Hockey Select 15 camp that year.

His performance garnered the attention of the United States National Team Development Program, and he played the next two seasons with them. During his tenure, he scored 27 goals and 48 assists in 101 games. He topped all defensemen in goals, assists and points in 2005-2006, and his 1.04 point-per-game pace was good for second best on his team. In 20 games against NCAA teams, the 17-year-old led the defensemen in points with 6 goals and 9 assists.

Johnson made his international debut at the 2005 World U17 Hockey Challenge and then later played for the United States in the 2005 World U18 Championships where the Americans took home the gold. The following year, he was a major force in the Americans' successful quest to win gold once again. His 10 points in the 6 games earned him the Bob Johnson Award for the Best American Player in the international competition.

More impressive stats meant more accolades. It also meant serious consideration for the upcoming draft. Despite heavy competition, it wasn't too much of a shock that the Blues took Johnson first overall. However, it was a bit of a surprise that he stuck to his original plan and chose college over going pro that first year. It paid off as he honed his skills with the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers, and in 2007, scored another 10 points in international competition, this time at the U20 World Championships where Team USA won the Bronze Medal. Those 10 points made Johnson the first defensman in tournament history to lead all players in scoring; he was named the Best Defenseman of the tournament as a result, as well as honored with a spot on the tournament's All-Star team. He also found himself on the WHCA All-Rookie Team that year.

At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 season, It was clear to everyone, especially Erik, that it was time to take his career to the next stage. He didn't regret his decision to wait a year. In fact, when he announced his plan to go pro, he said, "It was a great choice to come to Minnesota this year. It was a great steppingstone. But next year, I really think I need to make the jump in competition in order to keep developing the way I want to." So on April 20, 2007, Johnson signed a three-year, entry-level contract with St. Louis.

His rookie season did not disappoint. He scored his first goal against Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings, a goal that would win the game for his team. He finished the 2007-2008 season with 5 goals and 28 assists in 69 games, while averaging 18 minutes of ice-time per night. His point totals put him first among his team's blueliners that year, and his career seemed to be moving along as planned when he was named to the NHL YoungStars team that season.

Expectations were high for the young defenseman coming into the 2008-2009 season, but a freak accident sidelined him for the entire year. He was with his teammates at a Missouri golf course, participating in some unofficial team bonding, when he got his foot caught between the accelerator and brake pedals of a golf cart. Some say he was playing golf cart polo when it happened. Regardless, he tore up his ACL and MCL badly enough that he had to undergo knee surgery. The recovery time was such that he had to miss his sophomore season.

Upon his return, Johnson picked up right where he left off. He notched 39 points in 79 games for the Blues in the 2009-2010 season. He played in the Olympics in February of 2010, being a major component in Team USA's surprising run and the winning of the Silver Medal. In August of 2010, St. Louis signed him to a two-year, $5.2 million contract, and he was named an Alternate Captain for the upcoming 2010-2011 season. Johnson's future with the Blues seemed secure.

Unfortunately, the season didn't go as Johnson hoped it would. He struggled offensively and was having trouble in his own end. He played 55 games for the Blues and only managed 19 points (5g, 14a). He scored a goal against his own team and, if that wasn't bad enough, took a puck to the face during a January practice, knocking out four teeth. It seemed things couldn't get much worse for him, but there was more just around the corner.

In the biggest move of the 2010-2011 season, the Blues traded Erik Johnson, along with Jay McClement and a conditional first round pick, to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk and a conditional second. To say it was a shock to Johnson would be an understatement. But it gave him the impetus he needed to find his game again. He was determined to make his former team regret the trade, and it didn't take long for the Avalanche to realize they'd made a smart choice.

In only 8 games with the Avs, Johnson has already recorded 4 points (2g, 2a) on an offensively anemic team and has led in TOI every game, averaging nearly 26 minutes. True to his promise, he reminded the Blues what they gave up as he scored his first goal with his new team against his old one. Johnson believes his biggest hockey gift is his skating ability, but recognizes that he can see the ice well and make great first passes out of the defensive zone. He also sees his stick positioning, specifically in front of the net, as an often unrecognized talent. Those skills, and a dedication to constantly improving, have made him the clear star defenseman in Colorado. Former Columbus general manager Doug MacLean said, "...Erik an asset that's hard to find. There's not many of them out there." The Avalanche's new acquisition is certainly not dispelling that belief with his play thus far.

Erik Johnson believes that "the harder you work, the luckier you get" and that sometimes a team needs that "junk yard dog mentality" in order to be successful. It's no secret that this is the kind of attitude the young Avalanche team needs in order to be competitive in the seasons to come. It's hard to believe, though, that kind of leadership and wisdom comes from a guy who will turn only 23 in less than two weeks. On the other hand, it's very fitting of the kind of team the Avalanche have become: talented, hard-working, young players with maturity and wisdom beyond their years.


Fun facts:

Many people know that Johnson has ties with the Avalanche through Ryan Stoa as they played at the University of Minnesota together. (Both of them also played with Derek Peltier who spent two seasons with the Avs/Monsters.) What may come as a surprise, however, is yet another connection he has in Denver: Peter Mueller. Mueller and Johnson played hockey together every summer from when they were about 9 or 10 until 15 or 16. They even won the Pee Wee State Championships one year, blowing out the competition with scores like 8-1, 6-0, and 12-0.

Johnson's favorite team growing up was the Vancouver Canucks with Pavel Bure being his idol. However, he has since decided that the only Canadian he'll root for is Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins. (Don't hold that against him, okay, Sandie?)

In the past, he has changed numbers every time he went to a new team. His favorite numbers are 6 and 44. Could it be that he feared the Mack Truck, even given his size, making him stick with the 6 he used with the Blues instead of following tradition with a new, shiny 44?

Nicknames he's had over the years: EJ, E, Johns, Johnny, and Horse, which was given to him by his dad's friend. A reporter once called Johnson The Chief because of the dichotomy between his size and his personality, something also seen in the character of Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.