DENVER (AP) — There’s a 13-year age gap in the pairing of Colorado Avalanche defensemen Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram. They play different styles, too.
But their chemistry on the ice is undeniable and their stories have another link, too, as both have dealt with the lingering effects of concussions.
Longtime NHL veteran Johnson and rookie Byram have been quite a combination on the blue line for an Avalanche team heading back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001. Game 1 against Tampa Bay is Wednesday night in Denver.
Go ahead, make all the age jokes. They do.
“He’s been playing forever,” cracked Byram, who turns 21 on Monday.
Johnson’s experience over 14 NHL seasons, though, is rubbing off on Byram, the fast-moving, make-things-happen defenseman who is crafted in the same sort of mold as dynamic teammate Cale Makar. Byram brings out the best in Johnson, too, a physical defenseman who’s not afraid to jump in and help in the offensive zone.
“He’s kind of got an old-school soul,” the 34-year-old Johnson said of the kid. “He’s so young but has that throwback style to him, how he is off the ice. If he played all year, he’d be in the running for rookie of the year.”
Earlier this season, Byram dealt with concussion symptoms. He even took a break from the team to mend. Johnson knows all about the topic, playing in just four regular-season games during 2020-21 and missing out on a postseason when Colorado was eliminated by Vegas in the second round.
His light-hearted presence was missed.
“I’m old on our team, not old in life,” Johnson said earlier this season. “I still act a little like a goofball. I feel like one of the guys, not an old guy. Just try to have fun every day.”
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He’s a team-first player, too, and waived a no-movement provision last summer during the expansion draft of the Seattle Kraken. It allowed Colorado to protect players such as Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen. The Kraken took Colorado’s Joonas Donskoi, electing to pass on Johnson’s salary and injury history.
“I obviously love Denver and didn’t want to leave but rolled the dice and figured they wouldn’t take me,” Johnson explained. “Luckily, I’m back here and happy.”
Thriving, too, in the postseason next to Byram, who was held to 30 games but still tied for third among NHL rookie defensemen in goals with five. Byram wasn’t with the team for personal reasons from mid-January to late March. He went on a conditioning assignment with the Colorado Eagles in the AHL before rejoining the team April 5 in Pittsburgh.
“The organization did a great job of helping me get the help I needed,” Byram said. “So it’s in the rearview mirror. Now I’m just focused on playoffs.”
Johnson has been a sounding board for Byram, whose skating reminds the veteran a lot of Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer’s.
Simply one high draft pick helping another — Johnson was taken No. 1 overall by St. Louis in 2006 and Byram fourth by Colorado in 2019. Byram has become an astute student and soaks in Johnson’s advice. Byram has seven assists so far in the postseason, with Johnson recording a goal and four assists.
“He’s only getting better and better,” said Johnson, who was traded to Colorado in February 2011 and currently is the longest tenured athlete of Denver’s four major sports teams. “If I can expedite that process … glad to do so.”
When the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001, they boasted a blue-line core that included Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. This version runs just as deep, with Devon Toews and Makar paired together, along with 35-year-old Jack Johnson and Josh Manson, and Byram and Johnson. Samuel Girard is out after suffering a broken sternum on a hit in the St. Louis series.
It was recently pointed out to Byram that he was four days away from being born when the Avalanche took home the title in ’01 in seven games over the New Jersey Devils.
“Saw a tweet about that the other day, got a chuckle out of it,” Byram said. “It would be nice to win a Cup here.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar had an inkling this pairing would work.
“But you never know when you first put guys together what kind of chemistry they’re going to have,” Bednar said. “Erik is a pretty vocal guy, not all our players are, but he’s pretty vocal and he’s pretty tuned in to what’s going on. So having a guy back there that’s kind of relaxed and is able to talk is important. Erik and Bowen have done a good job stepping up. I have liked them together.”
It’s already a deep bond even with the age difference.
“We like to goof around, joke around off the ice a little bit and give each other a hard time,” Johnson said. “But on the ice, we’ve found a good chemistry and we’re playing well together.
“It’s been a good marriage, a good partnership for us. So, yeah, really enjoy him a lot. A great kid and the sky’s the limit.”