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

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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.”

Fight video: Flyers’ Manning vs. Penguins’ Gaunce

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Breaking: the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers don’t like each other.

The stakes might be higher for the Penguins than the Flyers – aside from those who still believe Philly has a shot at a playoff run – their rivalry rarely subsides.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Sunday featured at least one fight, with Cameron Gaunce squaring off against Brandon Manning in a pretty spirited bout.

Manning isn’t shy about fighting, by the way; this was his seventh bout of the season, according to Hockey Fights.

Higher on the radar for the Penguins is the situation for Conor Sheary, who has been absent from the ice since about midway through the first period. PHT will keep an eye out for updates on what could be yet another injury for the health-challenged Pens.

Dreading the work week? Watch this dog get ‘ice time’ with puck

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Life is difficult, complex and confusing. Good thing we have dog videos.

Forgive this video being one night late, but for those of us who watch cute animal clips, time is a furry circle. Or something like that.

Anyway, this golden retriever got a little “ice time” before the Washington Capitals’ game against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday in what would end up being a 4-1 win for the Caps. It’s an excellent video featuring a top-notch, hilarious pooch.

Alternate joke: Now that is some puck retrieval.

Patrik Laine’s out sick for Jets on Sunday

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Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are locked with identical goals (34), assists (27) and points (61) on Sunday, which is remarkable since Laine has played in 67 games versus 75 for Matthews. He won’t get a chance to beef up his numbers on Sunday, either.

It looks like the high-scoring rookie is missing the Winnipeg Jets’ contest against the Vancouver Canucks because of an illness, according to TSN’s Sara Orlesky.

The Jets are almost assured to miss the playoffs, so seeing Laine lose a chance to bolster his Calder argument adds a little extra sadness to the night.

NHL schedules hearing for Micheal Haley’s sucker-punch on Calle Jarnkrok

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced a Monday hearing for San Jose Sharks tough guy Micheal Haley for his “roughing/sucker punch” on Calle Jarnkrok of the Nashville Predators.

The league didn’t specify if Haley will face a telephone or in-person hearing on Monday afternoon. They did, interestingly, use the phrase “sucker punch” in that official announcement.

Haley received a match penalty during the game. Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was highly upset about the hit that inspired Haley’s actions.

“When you run someone from behind in a game like that, you probably deserve to get a punch in the mouth,” DeBoer told reporters.

In other bad news for the Sharks, CSN Bay Area’s Kevin Kurz reports that Logan Couture‘s situation isn’t looking promising after he was hurt on Sunday.