When Erik Johnson is on, there aren't a lot of players like him. At 6'4" and 230 lbs, he can skate like the wind, stick handle through the densest of traffic, and smoothly finish from anywhere inside the blue line. His uncanny ability to glide through defenses looks almost effortless, his wide stick radius like the wingspan of his nickname, the majestic condor.
And that's just one end of the ice.
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Johnson's physical skills easily justify his first-overall draft position in 2006. The tools he possesses are rare in league where most teams are choosing between brutish size and the smaller, faster, puck-moving variety. With Johnson, you simply don't have to -- but you do have to worry about his health.
Ever since his infamous golf cart accident while a member of the St. Louis Blues, Johnson has endured a number of more minor knee injuries that have either cut short his season or limited his spectacular physical skills. In 2014-15, after 12 goals and 11 assists in 47 games (earning him his first All-Star nod), he suffered a sprain that would keep him out for the remainder of the year. And his success wasn't just counting stats either. His shot differential was Plus-4.0 5-on-5 relative to his teammates, all the while getting only 44.8% offensive-zone starts. It was a career year in just over half a season.
So, when the knee healed up prior to 2015-16, expectations remained high. Would Erik Johnson return to being the undisputed No. 1 defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche? Well, that's complicated.
Like the rest of the team, he struggled out the gate. Whether that had to do with regaining his health or adjusting to new defensive partner Francois Beauchemin, the pairing simply wasn't as good as the previous iteration with Jan Hejda. The pairing was getting a brutal amount of defensive-zone starts and not converting them into enough offensive chances.
It wasn't until after another more minor knee injury suffered in early January when Johnson started to get his footing. Finally, he looked like his old self and the goals started piling up again. He would finish with 27 points in 73 games, but the possession numbers weren't as pretty. With just 42.7% o-zone starts, he would finish the year Minus-0.7 CF Rel, a considerable slide from the previous season.
Was it the defensive system? Was it playing 24:00-plus a game with Beauchemin? Or was the regression due to the physical health of Johnson?
Chances are it's a little bit of each and the team is going to have to find a solution to overcome all of it if they're to be successful next year. Johnson has to find a way to play a full season, the team needs to experiment with a younger defensive partner whose play won't diminish playing big minutes, and the defensive system needs to do a better job suppressing shots.