DENVER -- It's been seven years since Erik Johnson was chosen by the St. Louis Blues with the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft, and so far that lofty draft status has turned out to be more of a curse.
Now at age 25 and in his fourth season with the Colorado Avalanche, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound defenseman is optimistic that he finally will get what has been a disappointing career moving in a positive direction.
A restructured management team led by executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic is one reason; a new coaching staff led by Patrick Roy is another. They were the mainstays of the Avalanche's two Stanley Cup championship teams, and Johnson believes their return to Denver in prominent roles bodes well for the team's future as well as his own.
"They both won here in Colorado, so they know what it was like and how it was done, the ins and outs of everything about being a winning team," Johnson told NHL.com. "Just their attitude and their presence and their knowledge will go a long way for our young group. Just the winning mentality, I think, will be really, really good for us. The knowledge and the swagger that they have, I think they can translate that into building a team."
Roy and former Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote, another member of the Stanley Cup teams from 1996 and 2001 who has rejoined the organization as a defense development consultant, will have the most influence on Johnson while working with him in practices on a daily basis.
But a discussion Roy had with Johnson during the summer about putting the past behind him could be as instrumental in determining how the rest of his career unfolds.
"I had a great conversation with Erik," Roy said. "I'm confident he's going to have a very good year. We're going to work hard with him to not live in the past; it's now, 'Don't worry about the first overall thing; it's over. We want you to be who you are.' Erik needs to be Erik Johnson. Go hard, go out there and play his game and be himself. We're going to try and bring a lot of confidence to his game. Yes we want him to play better defensively, but we don't want to take away his offensive skills."
Johnson sandwiched two respectable seasons with the Blues around the 2008-09 season, which he had to sit out due to a knee injury sustained during a golf outing. Frustrated with his inconsistent play, the Blues traded him late in the 2010-11 season to the Avalanche, along with center Jay McClement and a first-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, in exchange for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, right wing Chris Stewart and a 2011 second-round pick.
Avalanche general manager Greg Sherman said at the time that he expected Johnson to anchor the team's defense for years to come. He signed him to a four-year, $15 million contract before last season, one that ended in yet more disappointment.
Johnson missed 17 of 48 games because of injuries -- 11 with a concussion, six with a wrist injury -- and he finished with four assists in 31 games.
"It was the first time I didn't have a goal in my entire life," Johnson said.
Making matters worse, the Avalanche tumbled into the Northwest Division basement with a 16-25-7 record, the worst mark in the Western Conference and second worst in the NHL. The difficult season prompted team president Josh Kroenke to promote Sakic to his new role and fire coach Joe Sacco, who was succeeded by Roy in May.
Soon after, Roy had what he hopes will be a career-changing conversation with Johnson, who said it hasn't been easy living up to the expectations of others.
"Patrick said you can't control what happened in the past and you can't control what people think about you; you can only control how you play," Johnson said. "That's all you're thinking about if you're free and clear; you're just going out and playing hockey and having fun and using your instincts and using your skills and not worrying about messing up, and not worrying about making a mistake and just playing your game."
Though still inconsistent, Johnson worked on his defense last season and made some progress in that area. But he averaged 2.06 shots on goal per game for an Avalanche team that produced just five goals all season from its defense corps.
"Obviously last year was difficult," he said. "I wasn't exactly told to use my offense, more to just play solid and play in your own end. I think it's good that Patrick's going to allow me to use my skills and jump in the play and be active, and do the things that made me successful offensively in the past."
Since scoring a career-high 10 goals for the Blues in 2009-10, Johnson has totaled 12 goals in 181 games the past three seasons. He has seven goals in 126 games in parts of three seasons with the Avalanche.
While Johnson said he didn't feel Sacco held him back offensively, but he said he does expect to be more involved in the attack with Roy in charge.
"I really liked Joe. He gave me a good opportunity to play a lot and he treated me with a lot of respect," Johnson said. "Do I think maybe I could have done a little more things offensively? Yes I do. My offense wasn't there, so I think once it wasn't there I kind of just accepted a defensive role and Joe wanted me to play that style of defensive role. Once you kind of get set in a role, it's how you play. I wouldn't say my role was to put up a lot of points.
"With the [coaching] change and with what Patrick has told me, he probably wants me to be that offensive guy. He wants me to jump in the play and create offense. That's good to hear because he's relaying to me that I can go out there, play offense and still be responsible defensively."
Johnson still has plenty of work to do on the defensive end.
"He needs to understand that he has to go and work hard every day and have good practices," Roy said. "I think he is one of the guys that will benefit a lot from the details, the 2-on-1s, the 3-on-2s we have [in practice]. He went fishing in the corner in one drill instead of staying in front and protecting [the slot].
"The more we're going to do those things, I think Erik is going to become a better defenseman and he's going to play up to what he wants to do and not what the expectations [have been]. He's a bit inconsistent. I'd like to see a little more consistency in his play, but we'll get there."
The Avalanche didn't make any major moves to upgrade a defense that was much too porous last season. Andre Benoit signed as a free agent and Cory Sarich was acquired from Calgary in a trade that also brought in forward Alex Tanguay.
"There's no doubt our [defense] needs to be better as a whole, as a group," Johnson said. "The best teams that defend, they defend as a group of five. We need to be better as a group of six defensemen, but we need to defend as a team.
"It's a big year for our franchise. A fun year is a winning year. There's winning and there's misery, and there's been a lot of that lately. That's something we have to change."
The Avalanche are counting on Johnson to be a major part of that change.
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