Edmonton Oilers v Colorado Avalanche

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.”

Capitals accuse Letang of leaving his feet, hitting Johansson in head

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Get this: the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins seem divided on the legality of Kris Letang‘s hit on Marcus Johansson.

(Take a moment to gather your thoughts amid this shocking revelation.)

You can watch the hit over and over in the video above. This post features some takes on that check, which the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly reviewing.

Generally speaking, the three things people discuss regarding the check is how late it might be, if Letang used his feet and if Johansson’s head was the principal point of contact.

Letang told his side of the story:

The Capitals disagree:

While Barry Trotz pleads the Fifth after his previous comments about Brooks Orpik‘s suspension:

No doubt about it, Letang’s status is the top story to follow in this series between Games 3 and 4. We’ll find out soon enough how it all shakes out.

Penguins ride Murray’s masterpiece to 2-1 series lead vs. Capitals

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If Marc-Andre Fleury suiting up bothers Matt Murray, then the rookie goalie channeled those feelings into a masterful performance on Monday.

The Washington Capitals absolutely dominated Game 3, but Murray was even better, stopping 47 shots as the Penguins stole one 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead.

(Capitals fans might see some parallels to Washington’s Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers; they fell 2-0 despite a 44-11 shots on goal edge thanks to Michal Neuvirth‘s heroics.)

Murray stopped chance after chance before Alex Ovechkin finally broke through for his first goal of this series. Justin Williams then brought the Penguins’ lead down to 3-2 to make for a hold-your-breath final minute.

A driven Ovechkin and strong overall play from the Capitals (despite this defeat) aren’t the only reasons why Game 4 might present some twists.

First things first: Kris Letang might get suspended for Game 4 (if not for more than one game) thanks to this controversial check on Marcus Johansson.

Beyond that, there could be some bumps and bruises from this contest.

Bryan Rust left during the first period and didn’t return to the game after blocking a shot. Brian Dumoulin seemed shaken up after an Alex Ovechkin hit in the third period. The Capitals might have a player or two to look at, as well.

In other words, the Penguins could really lack for quality defensemen with Letang possibly suspended and possible injury absences for Dumoulin and Olli Maatta.

This series is living up to the hype … and really building up the hate.

Yes, NHL is reportedly looking at Letang’s hit on Johansson

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It remains to be seen if Kris Letang will get suspended for his hit on Marcus Johansson … and if he does, for how long.

(You can read initial reactions and some analysis about the specifics of the check vs. the one that got Brooks Orpik suspended here.)

There are a few things we do know already.

For one thing, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is reportedly looking into it.

Another factor that could help Letang avoid a suspension or limit the duration of supplemental discipline: Marcus Johansson returned during the second period.

In fact, Johansson delivered some hits on Letang.

There have been some nasty moments in Game 3, and more might be coming. The Penguins lead 2-0 with a few minutes remaining in the middle frame.

Kris Letang may face suspension for hit on Marcus Johansson

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Update: Reports indicate that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is indeed looking into the hit.

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As thrilling as this Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series has been, it seems like every game presents another controversial hit.

Game 3’s most noteworthy entry (so far?) came when Kris Letang was whistled for interference on Marcus Johansson.

Penguins fans griped that Brooks Orpik didn’t get a major penalty for his hit on Olli Maatta … now Capitals fans likely feel the same about the check Letang delivered.

Watch it in the video above. Also, Stefanie “My Regular Face” has it in GIF form:

Things could get ugly in Game 3:

One factor in a suspension happening – or at least the duration of the suspension – would be what the point of contact was:

Also, lateness of the check:

The Penguins ended the first period up 2-0 against the Capitals, even though Washington played one of its best 20 minutes of the series. Expect more drama.

Update: The Penguins won the game 3-2.

Read reactions to the check here.