The Importance of Being EJ


“I’m very happy for (EJ) and very proud of him.” Patrick Roy

Maybe the haters will stop hating, but it’s unlikely. Defenseman Erik Johnson —


defenseman Erik Johnson — will likely always be a polemic figure on the Colorado Avalanche. You either love him, or you hate him.

Well, Avs Nation,we should love him because he’s our EJ — and he’s becoming a force on the ice.

EJ vs. Suter

At the beginning of the season I wrote an article about how Erik Johnson was getting close to matching stats with a player widely revered as a two-way defenseman, Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Suter.

This season, despite the Avalanche’s slow start compared to the Wild’s faster one, Johnson is bettering him:

  • More points: 11 vs 9
  • More goals: 3 vs 1
  • Better shooting percentage: 7% vs 3%
  • More blocked shots: 36 vs 22
  • More hits: 39 vs 22

To be fair, Suter is better in his turnover plus/minus as well as his overall plus/minus. He also has recorded a higher average of time on ice per game, but Johnson got thrown in the second period against the selfsame Wild and left another game early after hitting his head on the boards. Truthfully, he’s probably not going to match or exceed Suter’s legendary ice time — but he’s drawing close. He usually sees between 22 to 28 minutes per game. In the match against the New Jersey Devils, he logged an impressive 30:28 of ice time.

One more quick comparison — EJ’s only 26 and entering the prime of his career. Suter’s 29 an probably peaking.

Roy About EJ

Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy has a lot of confidence in Erik Johnson. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s true head coach Patrick Roy is known for being positive about his players, he’s not usually effusive about anyone but goalie Semyon Varmalov.

Just a few days ago, though, after the Devils game, Roy remarked, “EJ’s been outstanding for us. He’s been probably one of our better players all year.”

When asked about Johnson after practice today, he had a lot more to say. He acknowledged that Johnson has been working closely with assistant coach Andre Tourigny. However, he added that all the credit for Johnson’s improved performance goes to the man himself:

"“The only thing we did for him was show him some confidence from our part. I have to give all the credit to EJ himself. He’s the one that goes on the ice and performs – we’re just helping him with the confidence.”"

Confidence has ever been an issue for Johnson. In fact, when he first got traded from the St. Louis Blues to the Avalanche, he stated that he had lost his confidence in himself in St. Louis, and it showed in his game. He explained, “Hockey is 80% mental and 20% physical.”

The physical is there, too. Johnson related at the beginning of the season that he worked with strength and conditioning coach Andy O’Brien based on recommendations from teammates Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. Johnson stated that he focused less on upper body strength and worked more on his skating and stamina — he even lost 12 pounds over the summer.

Coach Roy has rewarded that effort with his confidence:

"“His game, it’s been just ‘Wow.’ That was a big play [Johnson made] against Jersey the other night to go end to end and score that goal, tie the game at two and put us back in the game. I think he played close to 30 minutes that game.”"

Overall, coach Roy is very impressed with EJ: “It’s amazing what a player can do with a lot of confidence and a lot of trust.”

EJ on EJ

This increased confidence has become evident. He has shown a lot of leadership on the ice and in practices. Besides the amount of ice time he logs, he uses his size to punish opponents and his skating and puck handling to harry them. And the boy shoots — when the rest of the Avs are passing the puck around like it’s a tray of cookies at a tea party, EJ shoots.

According to Adrian Dater of the Denver Post, Johnson has been a real leader in the locker room. He’s a practical joker to be sure — apparently his idea of a birthday cake is a face full of menthol shaving cream that stings the eyes. More than one player has remarked about how tough he goes on them in practice and in the locker room (just today he sprayed backup goalie Calvin Pickard with snow during practice). Hockey is a physical sport.

Concerning his hockey, Johnson credits the improvement in his play on the amount of time he’s been in the NHL now — he’s in his eighth full season. He told Dater, “Once I hit that 300-, 350-game mark, I just feel like I really took off.” He added in his philosophical way, “I wish it didn’t take that long for me to play like the way I am, but that’s how it worked out.”

The reason, of course, for the Avs Nations love-hate relationship with EJ is how he performed when he first joined the team. A lot of people felt like the Avalanche gave up a lot for him — Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart — and Jay McClement, who’s not even an Av anymore. When he came over, he struggled — the whole team was struggling.

Johnson said of that time, “There wasn’t a lot to feel very good about the first couple years here.” It’s better now:

"“Patrick (Roy) and (assistant) Andre Tourigny came in and really instilled some confidence in me. To be getting 25 minutes a night from a Hall of Fame coach feels pretty good. It’s a lot of fun to be that player you know you can be.”"

Naturally, EJ wishes the team were doing better. He knows he has a lot to give, though:

"“I knew I could always be a top defenseman, and I think I’m showing that right now. Once you’re out there and you’re comfortable and you know everything that’s happening around you, once that clicks in, it’s so much fun.  And it’s clicking for me right now.”"

So, Avs Nation, the importance of being EJ is that he is a top defenseman. The stats show it. The anecdotes show it. His Hall of Fame and award-winning coach states it. The player himself feels it.

And he’s our EJ.