Evaluating Colorado Avalanche’s Erik Johnson


“This game [hockey] is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical.” — Erik Johnson

A wise young man once said, “The lovers are going to love you, and the haters are going to hate you – no matter who you are.” That young man, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, should know – he has one of the most polemic hockey reputations in the league. You’re either Hall of Famer

Patrick Roy

saying he’s the Avalanche’s best defenseman or Hall of Famer

Peter Stastny

claiming his acquisition set the team back years. Hardly anyone reacts to Erik Johnson with an unconcerned, “Meh.”

Reason for the Johnson Polarization

Erik Johnson was selected first-overall in the 2006 NHL draft. It’s rare to select a defenseman first overall, and even rarer to choose an American-born one. All eyes were on Johnson from the first day – literally, his first day of training camp with the St. Louis Blues was widely covered in the press.

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  • To say Johnson did not live up to that selection is a simplification of the situation. No, he has never even been considered for the Norris Trophy for defensemen. However, he’s earned two gold medals and a bronze playing for the World Juniors. He’s earned a bronze medal playing at the World Championships. And he has a silver medal from the 2010 Olympic Games.

    Johnson had a good rookie year – not Calder good, but decent. He missed his entire sophomore year with an injury, then he played well, made the Olympics, tanked, improved and got snubbed for the Olympics. People basing their decisions about Johnson have plenty of fodder to support their side in all that.

    In short, Johnson has not had a boring career.

    Erik Johnson Advanced Stats

    Johnson matched his career best in the 2013-14 season, which is good because it was precluded by his worst season. Granted, that was the lockout-shortened year, and everyone’s stats dipped. Johnson’s didn’t just dip, though – they bombed.

    [table id=3 /]

    However, when you look at Johnson’s 2013-14 statistics, you see that he is playing at a top level – cornerstone of a team’s defense level. Unconvinced? Compare him to another two-way defenseman who is the unquestioned cornerstone of his team’s defense, Ryan Suter.

    [table id=4 /]

    Johnson actually bests Suter in some key categories:

    • Goals (1 more)
    • Points per 60 minutes (1.27 vs. 1.07)
    • Takeaways (49 vs 30)
    • Turnover plus-minus (7 vs -11)
    • Blocks per 60 minutes (4.2 vs 3.3)
    • Hits (136 vs 72)

    That last stat is especially interesting because Johnson is often accused of not using his size as an intimidation factor. True he’s what head coach Patrick Roy calls a skill player, but obviously he’s laying some hits on opponents.

    What do Johnson’s stats tell us about the player? What anyone who watches him regularly already knows – he’s a solid two-way defenseman, not as flashy as an Erik Karlsson or a Drew Doughty, but an asset for his team.

    Rationale for Johnson’s Stats

    No one can explain the reason for Johnson’s statistics except the man himself. Plenty try – usually to the tune of “What a bust.” That’s simplistic. Erik Johnson is a talented player from the so-called “State of Hockey” who developed in the United States Development Program. Where did all that talent and skill go?

    Potential is as fickle as a combustible gas. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you live up to it. And just because it didn’t show itself at one moment doesn’t mean it won’t come out.

    During an interview with CBS Sports, Johnson said, “This game [hockey] is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. If you’re not engaged 100 percent mentally, you’re going to have a lot of struggles.”

    Indeed, he went on to add:

    "“The thing I struggled the most with in St. Louis is confidence… It’s not so much confidence in your shot, it’s just confidence in your abilities all around. For some reason I just lost that a little bit in St. Louis.”"

    In that same interview, Johnson called Joe Sacco “The best coach I’ve had in the majors so far.” That was in the honeymoon stage. As the Avs Nation can well attest, the Joe Sacco years were lean ones indeed. Even franchise player Matt Duchene floundered under his system. Duchene said of the Sacco years:

    "“There were very few people in this [dressing] room who were happy. Our style of play, it wasn’t right for this team. We knew it would fail… For myself, it was really hard to look at what we were doing and think it would keep on working.”"

    So, Johnson lost his confidence in St. Louis, and his play suffered. He’s never said so (not officially) but I daresay his confidence bombed under Joe Sacco. And his play bombed. Some players are more susceptible to their own head spaces than others. Johnson is one such.

    Ergo, Johnson is not a bust. He likely suffered a crisis of confidence, and his play correspondingly suffered.

    State of Johnson’s Hockey

    Colorado, thank goodness.

    As far as how Johnson is playing now, we already had a look at the stats, even in comparison. However, if a picture is worth a thousand words, I daresay the following videos are worth ten-thousand:

    Johnson picks up the puck behind his own net, smoothly skates coast to coast, splitting the Red Wings defense like a hot knife through butter. He shows his speed and his strength on skates in this goal.

    He’s even more impressive against the Edmonton Oilers:

    He motors up the ice like a juggernaut, pretending the Oilers don’t even exist until he carries the puck into the offensive zone. Then he dangles an Oiler defenseman, shakes off a forearm shiver and buries the puck in the net.

    Both of those goals would make the highlight reel for any player, be it Sid Crosby of Matt Duchene. And they’re both Erik Johnson’s goals from the 2013-14 season.

    Johnson’s defensive plays are harder to illustrate, but I direct your attention to his 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs Game 1 save:

    Johnson shows his speed and his hockey smarts. This is not a play just anyone could have made – sure, Nathan MacKinnon or Matt Duchene would be fast enough, but possibly neither would have been in a position to power up the ice, lingering south of the border as they do.

    If you notice, Tyson Barrie is on the ice, too. However, Johnson shoots past him on his way to the net.

    Projection for the 2014-15 Season

    Erik Johnson is going to have a career season. He’s flourishing under coach Roy’s system. He’s studying with Hall of Famer Adam Foote. He’s in the peak of his career.

    “The lovers are going to love you, and the haters are going to hate you.” — Erik Johnson

    And, contrary to popular belief, he’s not a bust.

    So, I predict Johnson’s going to have a career year. He’s going to prove he deserves to be the cornerstone of the Avalanche defense that coach Roy has already made him. And the Avs are going to offer him a contract extension next summer.

    They learned from their mistake with Paul Stastny, see. And Johnson is a native of the so-called State of Hockey. The Avs aren’t going to risk losing him to the Wild – or anyone else.