Erik Johnson is honored to represent the Colorado Avalanche at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, but the defenseman knows it's not just about him. He wouldn't be able to make his first-ever appearance in the contest without plenty of support.
"It feels good. It's rewarding, but at the same time it's not an individual game," Johnson said. "It's a team game, and I don't go out there by myself every night. I have great teammates that I play with every night. I couldn't do it without them. A great coaching staff, a great organization and great fans."
Johnson's inclusion in this year's all-star festivities is a no brainer.
At the time the league announced its roster, Johnson was leading all NHL defensemen with a career-high 12 goals. He ranks second among D-men on the team in scoring with 21 points (11 goals and 10 assists) in 40 games and is tied for first in power-play goals (3).
Johnson has also been the Avs' workhorse on defense, leading the club in ice time (24:17) and blocked shots (92) while also recording 73 hits (fourth-tied) and 24 takeaways (sixth-tied).
Of the 36 players named to the all-star roster by the league on Saturday afternoon, only 10 are defensemen, putting Johnson in some elite company. He is also the first Avalanche blueliner to be selected to the game since Rob Blake in 2003-04 and the fourth in team history, joining Ray Bourque and Sandis Ozolinsh as well.
"Not that many spots so for me, it's a really cool honor," Johnson said of being one of the defenseman on this year's roster. "There are a lot of great players on the [Avs], anyone could have been named, and for me to be able to get the nod is pretty special and means a lot."
Defensemen—especially the shutdown, two-way kind—traditionally take longer to develop in the NHL than forwards, and Johnson was no exception.
The 6-foot-4, 232-pound rear guard had a slow start to his professional career with the St. Louis Blues, making his debut in 2007-08 after one season of college hockey at the University of Minnesota. He recorded 15 goals and 72 points in his first two full seasons with the Blues, but only registered 19 points in his first 55 games in the 2010-11 campaign before the Avalanche acquired him on Feb. 18, 2011.
The Bloomington, Minn., native finally came into his own last year, becoming the type of defender that most in the league thought he could be when he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by St. Louis. He tied his career high with 39 points (nine goals and 30 assists) while playing a team-high 23:00 per game. In the playoffs, his ice time increased to 30:22.
He is on pace to surpass those marks this year.
"I am getting a lot of ice time, and I am just relishing the role that I am in," Johnson said of his last two seasons. "[I'm] playing with a lot of good players that have got me the puck."
Johnson also wasn't satisfied with his play after a solid first campaign under then-new head coach Patrick Roy in 2013-14.
In his end-of-season meeting last May, Johnson said Roy and assistant coach Andre Tourigny wanted him to take more responsibility on the ice, including playing more minutes. He met the challenge by changing his offseason regimen; switched trainers, lost some weight and improved his on-ice conditioning.
The difference is easily visible. Johnson can recover quicker between contests during the grueling 82-game season while also playing big minutes in all three situations—even strength, power play and penalty kill.
"It's been a lot of fun to be able to go out there and play the way that I have," he said. "I think that change made a huge difference."
While this is the first time Johnson will make an appearance at the All-Star Game, it won't be his first time at All-Star Weekend when festivities begin in Columbus, Ohio on Jan. 23-25. As a rookie, he represented the Western Conference in the 2008 NHL YoungStars Game in Atlanta.
What he remembers from that experience was playing with some of the best players at his position.
"It was a lot of fun," he reminisced. "I was a rookie that year, and there were so many veterans that I looked up to at that time. I got to share the ice with guys like Chris Pronger, Ed Jovanovski and guys that I looked up to growing up. So it was a really cool honor to do that. For me going [this year], it's kind of cool to be back and have this great experience."
This time around, the young players might be looking up to him.