Edmonton Oilers v Colorado Avalanche

Colorado’s fortunes rest on Erik Johnson backing up his confident words


While the 2003 NHL Entry Draft is roundly considered the best draft in years – if not decades – the 2006 one is fascinating as well. Just take a look at the varied paths taken by the top five picks.

1. Erik Johnson (St. Louis)
2. Jordan Staal (Pittsburgh)
3. Jonathan Toews (Chicago)
4. Nicklas Backstrom (Washington)
5. Phil Kessel (Boston)

Even looking at the top five alone – and thus ignoring certain small droppers like Claude Giroux (22nd) and bigger ones like Milan Lucic (50th) – it’s reasonable to think that people would reassemble that top five quite differently today. Most would put Toews at No. 1, although perhaps stat-happy folks might lean toward Nicklas Backstrom and his exact point per game average. One could imagine some heated debates about the merit of defense-minded center Staal vs. flawed but explosive winger Kessel.

Yet while those four players have raised two Stanley Cups, battled through some epic playoff series and won an individual award or two, Johnson has been left in the dust. (Or some cruel jokers would say, he was left in a sand trap from a golf cart mishap.)

source: Getty ImagesLittle reason for confidence in Colorado

“Left in the dust” might be how people describe the Colorado Avalanche lately. The team just fell apart during the 2010-11 season, with blatantly obvious on-ice issues and mysterious locker room funkiness prompting drastic changes. The team jettisoned starting goalie Craig Anderson and budding power forward Chris Stewart in separate trades, the latter bringing in Johnson, the No. 1 pick who couldn’t live up to that billing with the Blues.

The real stunner of a trade came this off-season, though, when the Capitals seemingly bamboozled the Avs, nabbing Colorado’s 2012 first round pick and a conditional second rounder for the negotiating rights to another 2006 first rounder: Semyon Varlamov. Many smart hockey people expect that first round pick to be an excellent one, making this deal smell a lot like the Phil Kessel trade (yup, another 2006 draftee) that helped the Boston Bruins acquire Tyler Seguin.

By reasonable wisdom, draft pick disappointments might be the story of Colorado’s continued woes. Of course, there’s at least one person who confidently shot down such talk: Erik Johnson, the so-far-disappointing top pick of 2006. Here’s what he told Adrian Dater about Colorado’s upcoming season.

“It’s not going to be a (high) pick. It’s going to end up being a great trade for us. People are saying we got the short end of the trade and they’re happy because they think we’re going to finish at the bottom of the league — and we’re not going to do that this year,” Johnson said.

The article portrays Johnson as extremely motivated, with a new workout regime and the kind of take-charge attitude that might help him become one of the leaders on a team that went rudderless during an ugly 2010-11 season. There’s even some talk that he might have “captain” potential …

Johnson was one of five Avs players who took advantage of open ice time Monday at Family Sports Center. Together they did drills, with Johnson appearing to take on the role of ringleader. It just so happens the Avs have a vacancy at captain, and despite having been with the team only since late last season, it’s not inconceivable the 23-year-old could get the honor. The Avs have been up front with their hopes that Johnson will be the cornerstone to a big, strong and skilled defense for years to come.

Giving him the “C” might be a nice public show of faith in the native of Bloomington, Minn.

Johnson boasts all of the physical tools you hope to see in a top defenseman (and high draft pick), but he hasn’t put that together yet. It’s easy to forget that he’s young (23) and that defenseman often take a longer time to develop at the NHL level. It doesn’t help that he was part of a losing team in St. Louis, although one could lay some of that blame at his feet for falling short of expectations.

If the Avalanche have a chance to avoid being a laughingstock like many expect next season, it could come down to Johnson having the confidence to take over on the defensive end.

“I want to be a guy the coaching staff can use in all situations,” he said. “When I came here, Joe (Sacco) just told me to go out and play, have fun and don’t think too much out there. I started to feel like the player that I had been in the past. I felt like I started to get my confidence back, and when I’m playing with confidence, (I) almost feel unstoppable.”

Raffl coverts PTO into one-year, $575K deal with Jets

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There’s another Raffl in the NHL.

On Tuesday, the Jets announced that Thomas Raffl — the older brother of Flyers forward Michael Raffl — has signed a one-year, one-way deal worth $575,000.

Raffl, 29, was in Winnipeg’s camp on a PTO after a lengthy career in Europe. He spent time playing in Sweden and his native Austria, most recently with powerhouse EC Red Bull Salzburg — last year, Raffl scored 53 points in 52 games for Salzburg and three in seven games for Austria while serving as team captain at the World Hockey Championships.

“We would like to recognize and express our appreciation to the EC Red Bull Salzburg organization for allowing Thomas and the Winnipeg Jets this opportunity,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said in a statement.

With the Jets, Raffl projects to play in the bottom-six forward group, where he can utilize his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame in a checking-slash-energy role.

For now, though, he’ll start out with the club’s AHL affiliate in Manitoba.

Flyers to start season with seven d-men; MacDonald sent to AHL

Andrew MacDonald, Matt Calvert
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Seven defensemen will comprise the Philadelphia Flyers’ opening-day roster, which the club finalized today.

Those seven are Radko Gudas, Michael Del Zotto, Luke Schenn, Nick Schultz, Brandon Manning, Mark Streit, and Evgeny Medvedev.

Not on the list? Andrew MacDonald, who has cleared waivers and been assigned to AHL Lehigh Valley. (That move allowed the Flyers to keep both Manning and youngster Scott Laughton.)

Also not on the list were prospects Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Sam Morin, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim. The first three will start the season in the AHL. The last two have been sent back to junior.

But the opening-day roster is not where this story ends. How the Flyers’ defensive mix changes as the season progresses will be worth watching.

They’d no doubt love to move Schenn, a pending unrestricted free agent with a $3.6 million cap hit. He could also end up in the AHL, a la MacDonald.

Medvedev, the 33-year-old who came over from the KHL and put up five points in five preseason games, is another pending UFA. The club could either look to re-sign or flip him.

Might 37-year-old Streit be a chip worth cashing in at the deadline, especially if the Flyers aren’t in a playoff position on Feb. 29? He’s only got two years left on his contract.

Meanwhile, GM Ron Hextall will be watching pending restricted free agents Manning and Gudas closely. Are they part of the future?

So, lots of decisions to make in Philly as the blue line continues its much-needed transition.