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Will He or Won’t He? Discussing Erik Johnson’s 2017-18 season

Blaise and Jeremy have a back and forth on the upcoming season

Minnesota Wild v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Note: Let the record show, I (Blaise) think Johnson will have a fine season. Not great, but not terrible either

Erik Johnson has been quite the enigma since joining the Colorado Avalanche in 2011 through a trade that saw himself, Jay McClement and a first round pick that would eventually become Duncan Siemens move from the St. Louis Blues to the Avs in exchange for Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk, and a second round pick that would become Ty Rattie. Johnson has been one of the few constants within the team throughout the last few years. He has been the cornerstone of our defensive core, whether he deserves it or not. Being selected first overall in the NHL Entry Draft puts an immense amount of pressure on the young player, who has no doubt earned that position, but being a defenseman can only amplify it. In the last 25 years, only 6 defenders have been taken first overall in their respective drafts, for good reason. Generally, defensemen take longer to develop than forwards do and the basement dweller who gets the first pick needs a player who can make an immediate impact, such as our very own Nathan MacKinnon in 2013. Not only has Johnson not even come close to living up to his draft status, but some would argue he has never even been the best defender on our team. Why is that?

2006 NHL Entry Draft Portraits
Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, and Jonathan Towes on draft day
Dave Sandford/Getty Images for NHL

He just is not the player he was expected to be

Blaise: Sometimes, you just make a mistake. Sometimes, you just draft an Erik Johnson instead of a Johnathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, or Phil Kessel. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Johnson was unequivocally the number one choice in his draft class. Franchise defenseman. Offensive threat. Highly skilled. All of these were used to describe pre-draft Erik Johnson. Applying these labels to current Erik Johnson just sound silly. Yes, he is a serviceable defenseman. He just is not the #1 or #2 D he was expected to be and I believe the ship has sailed for him to improve any further.

Jeremy: While Erik Johnson has certainly failed to live up to the expectations for a no. 1 overall defenseman and franchise changer, he’s the best defenseman on the team. Tyson Barrie is far too offensive oriented to make an impact on the defensive end and Nikita Zadorov, who has all the potential in the world, isn’t even under contract. Simply put, for the Avs to have any shot at being relevant this season, Johnson has to play like a #1 defenseman who can hold his own at both ends. Does that mean he needs to be Drew Doughty or Brent Burns? No. It means he needs to what he is: the most well-rounded back end player in uniform.

He is overrated by fans

Blaise: Because of his overachieving seasons in 13-14 and 14-15, fans saw what Johnson could really do. He was a menace in the corners. Feared on the opposing blue line. His offensive production has kept pace, scoring 27 points in 73 games in 15-16 and 17 points in a shortened 16-17 campaign. Comparing seasons of similar length for him, the 14-15 and 16-17 seasons, he averaged less time on ice per game, less blocked shots, and less takeaways. He posted a 44.2% corsi which is the fifth worse of all regular NHL defenseman last season. On paper, he isn’t great. Realistically, he is nowhere near first pair caliber, no matter how badly fans would like to see him in that role.

Jeremy: I tend to agree with the notion that he’s overrated by Colorado Avalanche fans. I think the majority of NHL fans view him as a solid defenseman on a bad team, which is true. But Avs fans see him as a franchise defenseman that you can build around, which is less true. Despite being overrated by the hometown fanbase, it doesn’t mean Johnson is a bad defenseman incapable of having a good season. If healthy, he should be around a 30-point player and able to match-up with the top line of the opposing team.

Let’s keep in mind that Johnson hasn’t exactly played with the best defensive partners in the world. Jan Hejda, Francois Beauchemin, Shane O’Brien, Mark Barberio or any other average at best defenseman Johnson has been paired with does nothing but hinder him. He’s yet to play with a guy who elevates him and he’s not good enough to elevate any of those guys. In fairness, I’m not sure anyone is good enough to elevate the guys Johnson has been paired with throughout the years.

If Zadorov is in uniform on opening night, he becomes Johnson’s best partner since coming over to Colorado. If he’s not, well, we’ll probably see more of the same for him and the team.

He is injury prone

Blaise: Listen, the guy tore two ligaments in his knee in a golf cart accident, missing the entire season. He only played half of last season because of a leg injury. He has only come close to playing in an injury free season twice. Once in his stellar rookie season with the Blues and once in the best season in recent memory for Avs fans, the 13-14 season. Every other season, he has missed at least 10 games, more than likely more though.

Jeremy: I can’t really argue this point. He is injury prone and that has stunted in growth and development in multiple ways. He’s 29 now and logic says that players don’t improve a ton once they near 30. They might get better in certain areas, but you typically know what you have in a guy by the time they hit 30.

It’s possible that, because of all the injuries, Johnson has yet to show his full arsenal. But it’s also possible that multiple knee surgeries will never allow him to show that arsenal. If you’re an Avs fan, all you can do is hope that he’s healthy and appears in at least 70 games.

2016 Coors Light Stadium Series - Detroit Red Wings v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

He is not particularly good at anything

Blaise: Johnson can not produce points like a Kevin Shattenkirk or a Torey Krug. He can not shut down his own zone like a Drew Doughty or a Ryan Sutter. He is not a great two-way defender like a Victor Hedman or an Aaron Ekblad. Well, what is he good at? Nothing. He is middling in all three categories. His offense might shine brighter than his defense, but the Avs have Tyson Barrie for that.

Jeremy: I disagree that he’s good at nothing. He’s not an offensive dynamo or a shutdown defenseman, but he does everything well and he’s an exceptional skater. In fact, I’d say he’s one of the smoothest skaters in the league. He’s a guy that can go end-to-end in a couple of strides, weaving his way through traffic as he creates a scoring chance for himself or a teammate. Very few are able to glide along the ice like EJ and that’s what makes him such a threat on both ends.

He’s capable of being a very good two-way defender, we just haven’t seen it. Whether it’s been injuries, partners, or coaching, something has always held him back. It’s possible that changes this year. Jared Bednar’s system allows him to push the pace from the back end, something he must do in order to succeed. Zadorov gives him the ability to be a little more free roaming as he’s the most defensively competent and quick moving player Johnson has ever been paired with. Injuries are injuries and can’t be predicted, but hopefully, EJ avoids them this year.

For me, this is Johnson’s last year to prove he can be at least a #2 guy on this team. The team simply might not be good enough for him to prove that he’s an elite level defensemen, but he should be good enough to show that he’s worth investing in past this year.


Do you think EJ will prove to be a reliable defenseman for the Avs this season?

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