What’s the holdup with the Erik Johnson contract extension?
Right now hockey fans everywhere are counting down to training camp, preseason and then actual hockey. I’m right in there with them, but a part of me is keeping a nervous eye on another countdown — to NHL free agency. There are just 9 1/2 months until NHL free agency.
That means there are just 9 1/2 months until an Olympic medalist, All Star defenseman with size and puck-moving ability hits the free agency market. Just 9 1/2 months until Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson is an unrestricted free agent.
That would be an unmitigated distaster for the Colorado Avalanche blue line. That’s why it’s time to just get the Erik Johnson contract extension done.
Importance of Johnson on the Blue Line
Erik Johnson is the cornerstone of the Avalanche defense. The Avalanche training staff charged him last summer to improve his stamina so he could take on more of a leadership role in defense, and he did just that. He came back leaner and a little faster and dominated Colorado’s blue line.
Last season Johnson led all Avalanche players in time on ice, averaging about 24 minutes per game. These were not easy minutes. Though he saw time on the power play (not that that was so easy for the Avs last season), he also skated on the penalty kill. Not only that, Johnson skated against the top opponent lines and saw whatever start was needed — not just offensive zone starts.
Despite all that, Erik Johnson produced. He led all Avalanche defensemen in scoring, and finished tied for first among Avs defensemen for goals scored with 12. There was Norris Trophy talk before knee surgery ended his season.
Erik Johnson was also the only Avalanche player named to the All Star team. Head coach Patrick Roy said of him at the time, “EJ’s been our best player.”
After Erik Johnson, the Colorado Avalanche have a small guy, some really young guys, a couple pretty old guys and journeymen defensemen. There’s not a single player in the Avalanche defensive corps who could take over for Johnson.
Johnson vs Barrie
I like Tyson Barrie. You’ve got to admire a small guy (5-foot10, 190 pounds) who can take a hit from a giant like the Winnipeg Jets’ Dustin Byfuglien (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) and chortle, “He’s a big boy.”
Yes, Byfuglien is a big boy. Lots of big boys in the NHL. You don’t have to be a big boy to skate with the big boys, but it helps. Failing that, it helps if you’re at least a little scrappy.
No one’s going to accuse T-Bear of being scrappy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If the Colorado Avalanche are down by one or even two at the end of the third, Tyson Barrie is the man I want to see on the ice. I want to see him on the power play, and I want to see what he can do with that new three-on-three overtime.
I do not want to see Barrie skate against the Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf line, the LA Kings’ Anze Kopitar line or the St. Louis Blues’ David Backes line. That’s not to say he hasn’t done so, but Tyson Barrie’s not the player Avs fans want to see skating against gritty top lines.
Erik Johnson is. He’s big (6-foot-4, 230 pounds). He’s mean. And he can skate like the wind — or like a condor, which is why he’s called Condor. Johnson is strong on his skates and almost impossible to move off the puck. He may not score quite as pretty goals as Tyson Barrie, but he can score them.
Like I mentioned earlier, Johnson finished tied for first among defensemen with 12 goals. Not surprisingly, Barrie is the player who tied him. However, it’s very noteworthy that Johnson achieved those 12 goals in just 47 games, while Barrie skated 80 — and got his 12th goal during game 73 for him. (EJ’s came in game 41 for him.)
I’m not saying the Avs don’t need Tyson Barrie. I’m saying there’s no way Barrie could replace Johnson as the cornerstone on defense. Colorado needs both players.
That’s why Erik Johnson’s contract needs extending. He cannot hit free agency, or the Avs are going to see him go to another team willing to pay top dollars.
Defensemen on the Open Market
It’s no secret defensemen are a hot commodity on the free agency market. Heck, a great defenseman doesn’t even have to hit free agency to earn top dollars.
Dougie Hamilton was a restricted free agent over the summer who’s going to make $5.75 million with the Calgary Flames next season. Hamilton is a good player, but he’s not an Olympian All Star with Norris Trophy talk in his resume.
Erik Johnson could easily be offered $6 million, especially if his 2015-16 season continues the trajectory set last year. And there’s no reason to think it won’t. The Colorado Avalanche might match an offer like that, especially since it technically doesn’t violate the team “structure.” (No one can make more than Matt Duchene‘s $6 million salary.)
What if EJ’s got a really good agent, and the Erik Johnson contract offer goes north of $6 million? Would Avalanche execs be willing to match that?
Why should they let it get to that point? Erik Johnson has indicated multiple ways that he’s satisfied playing for the Colorado Avalanche. He’s worked hard to become the player Colorado expects. He’s also talked about how grateful he is that Avs execs “traded for me.”
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic said of the Erik Johnson contract:
"“Erik Johnson is going to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, so we are hopefully going to get him done.”"
Not a lot of urgency in that statement, but Joe Sakic has ever been an understated sort. I prefer to look at the fact that Colorado deliberately built the Avalanche blue line around Johnson. Plus, Patrick Roy is pleased with EJ, and Patrick Roy has final say in personnel decisions.
I like to picture Erik Johnson’s agent on the phone with the Avs’ contract negotiator hammering out the details. I imagine the contract being presented before Joe Sakic and Erik Johnson, and both men approving. I creep Twitter because, frankly, that’s the fastest way to hear hockey news, and I want to know right away when the Erik Johnson contract extension happens.
Because otherwise it’s 9 1/2 months before the Colorado Avalanche lose their best defenseman for nothing.
More About Erik Johnson:
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