Colorado Avalanche: Does the Defense Play Better without Erik Johnson

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: Erik Johnson
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: Erik Johnson /
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Colorado Avalanche players banded together to improve their defensive tactics while Erik Johnson was out serving his suspension.

The Colorado Avalanche had two of their best defensive games recently against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the LA Kings. And the Avalanche played those two games without their best defenseman, Erik Johnson.

That fact may seem a little strange. There’s no question that Erik Johnson is an excellent defenseman — at least, I don’t think there’s a question.

There certainly isn’t any in coach Jared Bednar’s mind. He awards players ice time based on performance, and Johnson leads all players in T.O.I. with an average of 25:38. Next down the list is Tyson Barrie with 21:53.

What’s more, Johnson sees the toughest minutes. Bednar doesn’t use him that much anymore on the power play, but Johnson is the Colorado Avalanche’s number-one penalty killer. It should also come as no surprise that a full 61% of Johnson’s starts come in the defensive zone. Oh, and he’s the defenseman on the ice against the opponents’ top players.

And yet, the Avalanche played their best defensive games against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Western Conference-leading LA Kings. Here’s an example of how they did against the latter:

Why did the Avalanche players play such good defense without Johnson?

The answer is pretty simple and obvious — they had to. When your best defenseman is out, everyone has to pull together and chip in to tighten up the ship. Indeed, Tyson Barrie said exactly that after his two-goal game the other night:

"“Obviously, you can’t replace E.J….Everyone has just got to step up and do the best they can, and collectively we can try to pick up the slack.”"

No, really, I don’t think anyone can question the value that Erik Johnson brings to this team. Color analysts Peter McNab and Mark Rycroft are consistently commenting on what a great year Johnson is having.

Johnson is not having a points-producing kind of year. At the moment he has recorded 12 points — impressively, four of them are goals, which ties him with Barrie for leading all defensemen. That puts him on pace for 30 points — his career highs were twice making 39 points.

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No, for Erik Johnson now it’s about being an elite two-way defenseman, heavy on the defense. Because it’s no coincidence that the Avalanche’s season fell off a cliff last year when Johnson sustained a broken leg, which kept him out for weeks.

So, back to the original question: Do the Colorado Avalanche play better defense without Erik Johnson in the lineup? Yes, they do because the team focuses more on that to make up for his lack. Would that be sustainable in his continuing absence? Obviously not — the Avalanche were 9-13-1 when Johnson got injured. That’s not great, but they free fell through December and January, winning just four games.

Their entire record without Johnson was 7-27-2. So, no, they’re most certainly not better off without Johnson.

Next: What Barrie Does for the Team

However, the key for all of the Colorado Avalanche is almost to play as if Erik Johnson isn’t there. In the sense that, keep chipping in and pulling together. Play as a cohesive unit, all the members of which are responsible for preventing opponents from scoring.

The Avalanche could see some real success that way.