Colorado Avalanche: Finding a Replacement for Erik Johnson

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 04: Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche plays the Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center on October 4, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 04: Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche plays the Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center on October 4, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

Colorado Avalanche cornerstone defenseman is already leaving his mark on the team as a player. He’ll also leave a legacy as his status changes to that of veteran.

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson is irreplaceable. Unfortunately, even if he could play for the team for the next 20 years, that’s probably not advisable. So, at some point, the Avs are going to have to find a replacement for him.

Or, rather, they’re going to have to find ways to replace him. And I’m using the plural deliberately because I don’t think it will be simple or singular.

At 30 years old, Johnson is fast becoming one of the veterans on the team. Indeed, he’s the dad of the blueline. One forward, Carl Soderberg, is older and one goalie, Semyon Varlamov, is the same age. As the Avs remain committed to their youth movement, those two are close to on their way out.

Johnson is not, nor should he be. It’s not just that he has five years left on his contract, it’s that he’s an integral part of this team. That said, his role will definitely be evolving over the duration of that contract. Let’s see what EJ brings and what the Avs can do to shore up a blueline that will one day be missing its Condor.

What Erik Johnson Brings to the Colorado Avalanche

Players like Erik Johnson aren’t as prized in the NHL as they once were, and that’s a crying shame. He’s a big, two-way defenseman in a league that puts speed, puck-moving, and scoring above those qualities even in defensemen.

That’s not to say that Johnson doesn’t have any of those qualities. He does. In spades. He’s big and physical, but he’s also got a stride that eats up the ice and puck-protection skills, not to mention his bomb of a shot from the point. While he’ll never be an Erik Karlsson kind of scorer, he is capable of creating scoring chances and even jumping into the play himself.

And he is so good at defense. Every kind of defense. Checking. Blocking pucks. Reading the play. Transitioning. If it’s a hockey defense, Johnson excels at it. He is simply an all-around player, an exceptionally well-rounded player that’s comfortable eating big minutes on the ice against the best in the NHL in every situation — power play, penalty kill, even-strength.

There are also his leadership qualities. I’m only being a little facetious about his being the dad of the blueline. He definitely takes all his young defensemen charges under his condor wings. I’ve seen him regularly mentoring them in practices. He’s also served as a liaison between the team and the officials in games — all of this long before he wore the A as an alternate captain.

Does it sound like Erik Johnson has impossibly large skates to fill? Well, now you see the conundrum the Colorado Avalanche are eventually facing.

Filling Holes as Erik Johnson’s Role Changes

Right now, Erik Johnson has a huge role on the team. He is the top-pairing defenseman. He should expect to see some of the most minutes in a game each night. He’s a leader, especially in the defensive corps. And, he’s responsible for shaping the identity of the Colorado Avalanche blueline not just now, but for year to come.

That last is why it’s interesting to consider Johnson’s “replacement” now. EJ is going to leave a legacy with this team. We’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start with some of the specifics.

I like to say that Nikita Zadorov is Johnson’s heir-apparent. While not completely accurate, that role is the closest to being true. Zadorov is big and physical. He’s a great skater and has offensive skills. I just don’t think he’ll ever be the complete, all-around player that Johnson is. But for physicality and offense, Big Z is a step in the right direction.

Samuel Girard is Johnson’s new defensive partner. While size-wise it appears to be a Mutt and Jeff pairing, Sam looks like a swallow circling the Condor. Last night at least they were in perfect accord on the ice as a defensive pair. I’m surprised how much I love this pairing.

Besides skating, Girard brings good defense. He reads the play well. He tracks the puck and is tenacious on the play with opponents. He’ll never be as physical as Johnson or Zadorov, but he can block and stick check with the best of them. So, he’ll be bringing that defensive help.

I’m going to skim over Tyson Barrie because he’s a different player than Johnson — he’s an addition to EJ, not help in replacement. Instead, I’m going to look at some of the players we have coming up the pipeline, specifically Conor Timmins and Cale Makar. To be honest, as an offensive defenseman Makar is more of Barrie’s heir-apparent. Until we see how much of his defense he develops at UMass this year, we won’t know how much he can contribute as an EJ replacement.

Timmins, on the other hand, is supposed to be a little more defense-minded. I think he can help a little in that smart puck-play like Girard. He’ll probably be at least as good as Johnson at making plays and jumping into the play as Johnson. He’ll probably never be the skater that EJ is.

When GMs talk about 200-foot players, they mean a two-way guy like Johnson. Besides players, another replacement feature is the new systems, which are heavy on both forechecking and backchecking. The current Avs players have bought into this 200-foot system if last night is any indicator.

Now, it’s entirely conceivable that Johnson will outlast the current coach, Jared Bednar. Five more years, eight total, is a long time for an NHL coach to remain with one team. If he’s successful, Bednar may well still be around in 2023. Even if he’s not, though, hopefully the systems, or at least the habits, that help the Avs play defensively remain.

Erik Johnson’s Legacy

Now on to Johnson’s legacy, which coincides with his leadership. In every way, Erik plays the right way. He also maintains his fitness in the right way. Last year he came to camp well exceeding the stringent expectations the coaching staff had set for all the players.

Johnson can be a leader to the young players about how to maintain your body, to take the right supplements, eat the right foods, and even recover in the right ways. He can show them while they’re still pups, so that when they, too, are the ripe old age of 30 they can still exceed fitness expectations.

All professional athletes are fit. EJ can show them how to be elitely fit, how to be the fittest of a bunch of extremely fit people.

There’s also his body of knowledge. Instincts like Johnson’s — and Girard’s — can’t be taught. However, he can bestow his knowledge of plays, player types, and players themselves. They can even learn from his mistakes.

Finally, Erik Johnson loves this team. I know in four years, you’re going to be looking askance at the $6 million the Avs are playing a 34-year-old. However, that last year was down payment on a player who otherwise took the hometown discount. He could have upped his yearly by at least a million if he’d gone to free agency. But he wanted to stay with this team and make it work.

To be clear, I wouldn’t have begrudged Johnson if he’d decided to follow money or glory. He has limited time to accumulate those treasures in a taxing sport. That said, he made the decision to go all-in on the Avs and its core. I’m sure with his leadership abilities, he’s helping instill that kind of attitude in the younger players as well.

Erik Johnson is the longest-tenured member of the Colorado Avalanche. He is an undisputed member of the team core. There’s no question that his role will develop over the next five years. However, it also seems clear that he will be leaving a stamp on the team. And that’s a good thing for the Avs.