|After missing last season with a knee injury, Blues defenseman Erik Johnson is set to return and is bigger, stronger and more powerful than ever. (Getty Images). |
It didn't matter that I was more than a couple hundred feet down the hall from the practice rink. Even from that distance I could still see the power. The skill. The shot. The stride.
On a warm and muggy St. Louis day in June, it was heartwarming to see defenseman Erik Johnson
looking like himself again -- a big, strong and powerful defenseman who is ready for a breakout season. Johnson missed all of last season following a freak accident before training camp in September that led to right knee surgery and trying times for the former No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft.
All of the essentials that were missing from the Blues in a season in which the team rallied from last place in the Western Conference in January to sixth place and the team's first playoff berth since 2004 were on display on this summer morning. Johnson's hard and powerful shot would have helped the power play that stalled miserably in the first round of the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. His tape-to-tape outlet passes were also missed, making it more difficult for the team to speed through the neutral zone. Carrying the puck up the ice with his strong stride is another of those great assets Johnson brings to the ice each day.
At a time when we were just finishing off the draft and talking about future impact, and a couple of days before the July 1 possibility of immediate impact in free agency, the Blues are ultimately excited that Johnson has been quietly pointing for training camp in September … and making the St. Louis roster better.
The reality of the situation in St. Louis is that the joy of seeing a young team come alive covered up the major weakness on the Blues -- they were dead last in points from their defensemen, with just 15 goals and 97 assists for 112 points. The magnitude of that total? It was an embarrassing 55 points fewer than the defense for the Canucks.
"Those are telling numbers. But you know something, Erik might get that 50-60 points by himself," said Nelson Ayotte, the St. Louis strength and conditioning coach. "He had something like 33 points as a rookie, right?" (5 goals and 28 assists to be exact).
"Just being around him, you can feel the confidence. He's hungry to prove to everyone he's healthy and that there's no limit to what he can do at the NHL level."
It's been a long road to recovery for Johnson. The healing. The waiting. The watching. The rehab. More waiting to get the doctor's permission to go ahead with a full offseason of … well, starting over.
But the Minneapolis native is so pumped and positive about his return, he decided to stay in St. Louis all summer to work with Ayotte off the ice and Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis at least three days a week on the ice after doctors gave him the green light to go all-out in his training. That training started with strength and endurance and was extended to explosion and puck skills.
The most noticeable results? The 6-4 defenseman is now packing 235 pounds of muscle -- 10 pounds more strength than in his rookie season.
"The season was kind of backward for me," Johnson said, smiling, yet shaking his head at the way things have happened -- no season for him, having to watch his teammates play without him. "When the guys were fighting down the stretch, I was rehabbing the knee."
Johnson won't listen to negatives, like how missing an entire season might affect his learning curve. He's bubbling with enthusiasm.
"I don't know if anyone could possibly be having a better offseason than me," Johnson said confidently. "I was ready for a great season before the accident. Now, I'm even more ready to show everyone who might doubt I can be even better than two years ago."
Said MacInnis, "EJ's a definite threat from the blue line. He's a mobile, puck-moving defenseman who can really push the pace of a game. It's no secret that our young forwards love getting the puck on their sticks with speed through the neutral zone. Erik can create that dimension for us.
"I've said this before, but it needs to be repeated about Erik: I don't see too many players who actually play faster when they have the puck … but Erik does. And that's exciting to see from a young player who has his whole future ahead of him."
Johnson's ability to make St. Louis better in transition can't be overstated.
"We've talked a lot over the last couple of seasons how you have to have puck movement and offense from the defense," coach Andy Murray said. "The game today is designed to attack with speed through the neutral zone. The top teams in the league have defensemen who produce points. That's what a healthy Erik Johnson
can do for us."
Murray harkened back to how the team's power play killed the Blues in the playoffs against Vancouver, when on at least two occasions they had long 5-on-3 man advantages and failed to produce.
It's abundantly clear that Johnson wants his return to the NHL to be smooth and seamless -- and he's positive it will be all of that, and more.
"I'm going to be ready to rock," Johnson said. "I want to be the best defenseman in the world some day."
That confidence, enthusiasm and production is what the Blues used to get from MacInnis. And they'll get it from Johnson once again very soon.