In praise of Erik Johnson

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In what’s been a season of disappointment for Colorado, something fairly significant has occurred.

Defenseman Erik Johnson, the former first overall pick at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, is playing the best hockey of his life. Johnson leads all NHL defensemen in goals, with 12, while averaging a career-high 24:17 TOI per game — two big reasons why he’s been named an All-Star for the first time in his career.

“I’m just getting rewarded for playing well,” he said, per the Denver Post. “I’m a really big believer that if you play the game fair and you play it the right way, if you don’t cheat the game, if you’re in the spot you’re supposed to be, if you’re picking up other teammates when they’re down, and if you’re doing all the right things as a player, the game rewards you.’

That mentality could be why head coach Patrick Roy utilizes Johnson as often as he does. Along with d-pair partner Jan Hedja, Johnson plays most of Colorado’s “tough minutes,” often facing the opposition’s top forwards while getting the majority of his shift starts in the defensive zone (55.6 percent.)

It also represents something of a maturation in Johnson’s game.

Given his pedigree and draft position, Johnson’s promise often exceeded his actual production. He was, lest we forget, just the second-ever American defenseman to be taken No. 1 overall (Bryan Berard was the first, in 1995); he also burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old, scoring 33 points in 69 games as a rookie, and was the centerpiece for the Avs in the 2011 blockbuster deal with St. Louis, one that also included Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart.

Since then, Johnson’s faced more disappointments than successes.

Johnson admits he had a sheltered role in St. Louis and, upon moving to Colorado, struggled to develop a well-rounded game. He was tabbed as a draft bust on a number of occasions — check out the lead from this Post article from November — and suffered a major setback last January, when he was left off the U.S. Olympic roster for Sochi. Johnson, who’s repped America at nearly every level, including the ’10 Olympics in Vancouver, admitted he was “disappointed and upset” by the snub, but has since used it to fuel his fire and play tremendously well.

“It almost looks like, when you’re watching him, that he took the expectations off himself and just goes out there and plays,” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said, per the Post. “It’s a lot of fun to watch. Because right now, he’s one of the best defensemen I’ve seen this year.”

It’s also worth pointing out that, despite seven seasons in the league and over 450 games played, Johnson is still only 26 years old. The old NHL adage states that learning to play defense takes longer than any other position, so what we could be witnessing this year is the former No. 1 overall pick finally blossoming into the franchise-type defenseman many envisioned on draft day.