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Blues' Johnson bulked up while missing last season

by Dan Rosen
STOCKHOLM -- Told Tuesday morning it is startling to see how big he's become since last playing a meaningful NHL game, St. Louis' hulking Erik Johnson put a big smile on his face as if to say, "Yeah, I know."

This is what missing your second NHL season with after knee surgery does for you:

Johnson spent months in the gym working on his strength and he's now huge. And, folks, by huge we mean 6-foot-4, 238 pounds with just 8.8 percent body fat, down six percent from his rookie season of 2007-08.

Yeah, that kind of huge.

In fact, at Team USA's Olympic camp in July, coach Ron Wilson called Johnson, "a mountain of a man." At that same camp, Blues center T.J. Oshie said of the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, "I’m definitely glad he is on my team."

Perhaps, though, Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman put it best when he told here in Stockholm Tuesday that Johnson "is a man now."

At 21 years old and in his third year as a pro, Johnson definitely is a man now. And, since his now famous freak golf cart incident deprived him of the 2008-09 season, Johnson also is a man who can't put into words how excited he is to get 2009-10 under way.

He played in all but one of the Blues' seven preseason games, but it's been 18 months since he has played a game that mattered -- April 6, 2008 at Columbus to close out his rookie season.

"I'm really excited, but it's kind of hard to describe," Johnson, who had 33 points in 69 games as a rookie, told "I have put in a lot of work and had to overcome a lot of unlucky adversity, but I feel good today."

So good, actually, that Johnson claims he has never been stronger than he is right now. He feels that he is shooting the puck harder and that he's more dominant in the corners.

"It shows on the ice," Blues rookie defenseman Alex Pietrangelo told "I can count numerous times in the last game when he pushed guys off the puck. It's good to see because he's young, so he's only going to get bigger."

A scary thought, according to Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who believes Johnson is going to be "a stud, just fantastic."

It's fair to say that Johnson used his time wisely last season by following strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte's plan after surgery so he could look like he does right now.

He couldn't do anything for two months after having the knee surgery, but once he returned to St. Louis from his home in Minnesota after Christmas he hit the weights hard. His started in with the cardio in February and that's how he dropped six percent of his body fat.

"I was able to pretty much work out every day," Johnson said. "I had a chance to really focus on my strength training, obviously a lot in my upper body. I have never been this strong in my upper body and I feel good in my lower body, too. I had a lot of time to really refine things and get an extra edge in the strength area."

As expected, Johnson struggled to watch his team play last season, especially early on when the Blues were struggling and even in the second half when they played well and earned a playoff berth by being the hottest team in the NHL down the stretch.

"At the beginning of the year when I knew I wasn't going to be back all year, that was probably the toughest part," Johnson said. "I was optimistic I could come back, but with that type of injury it's not that smart. Couple that with the team not doing well to start off, and it was terrible. It helped when they started winning and they went on that run, but it was hard not to be out there. You don't really feel part of it."

Johnson knew he was going to feel like that, which is why he wrestled with the idea of not having surgery on his knee. Of course, the Blues' doctors quickly convinced him otherwise.

"I wanted to play so bad, but that just wouldn't have been smart long term for my career in this organization," Johnson said. "I started feeling good in April and if they had made it maybe two more rounds I could have maybe played but it would have been a long shot. And, at that point, I don't think they would have even put me in."

Two more rounds would have put the Blues in the Western Conference Finals, which is where they think they could be come May of next year.

Some pundits may think the Blues are nuts to think that way, especially in a loaded Western Conference where the big dogs are still barking, but with a beefed-up Johnson back in the lineup, the Blues have reason to think, well, big.

"He came in as a big boy, wet behind the ears with a lot of raw talent, but he has worked really hard to come back in the best shape he can and now he's as strong as on the puck right now as I have seen any person be," Jackman said. "Even missing an entire year, I still think he has a lot of poise with the puck, he's skating well and he's making a lot of plays. He's using his shot, which is one of his biggest assets and something we really need from somebody this year. He's going to give it to us."
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