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Central: Johnson a virtual lock to earn a spot with Blues

by Larry Wigge
Defenseman Erik Johnson should be able to crack the St. Louis Blues lineup this season.
Erik Johnson (500K ) remembered feeling a need to see the St. Louis Blues play their home opener against the Boston Bruins a year ago. He also laughed when he said that the air was filled with a keen competitiveness ... even if he was 450 miles north of St. Louis on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Johnson, the first-overall pick by the Blues in the 2006 Entry Draft, finally found a TV equipped with the NHL Center Ice package at the sophomore house where he could watch the game.

There was a problem, however.

"Most of the sophomores were great friends with Phil Kessel (the fifth-overall pick in the ‘06 draft, who signed to play with the Bruins after his freshman season at Minnesota), so I was a guest and had to be a quiet Blues fan," Johnson chuckled.

That, of course, didn’t stop the 6-foot-4, 222 pound defenseman from Bloomington, Minn., from giving a few short fist-pumps when the Blues did something positive.

"I had a tough time not jumping out of my seat when the Blues rallied in the final minutes of the game (when Lee Stempniak and Jamal Mayers scored to rally the team from a 2-0 deficit) to send it to overtime," Johnson said. "But when Stempniak won the game for the Blues with that great backhanded goal in the shootout, I couldn’t control myself. I jumped out of my chair, pumped my fist into the air and shouted, ‘Yes!’

"The others in the room all looked at me kind of funny and said; ‘Settle down, big fella.’ "

There’s no need for the 19-year-old defenseman to look ahead to the future any longer. His first fist-pump on the ice in the NHL is just around the corner. The kid has grown up and he’s rubbing elbows with those Blues players he watched a year ago and he’ll bang bodies with some of the Bruins. On Oct. 4, he’ll be in Phoenix with the Blues to open the season and he’ll also be in the lineup on Oct. 10 when the Blues host the Nashville Predators in their home opener.

Just the other day Erik said he could see the Gateway Arch in the distance as he drove to the Scottrade Center in St. Louis while talking to his dad, Bruce, on the phone en route to the opening day of Blues training camp.

"I was listening to music and talking to my dad," he said. "I remember saying; ‘This is it dad, I’m here. I’m about to step on the ice as an NHL player.’ "

There was a pause in Johnson’s voice as he thought about the impact of those words.

"One minute you’re a kid, playing a kid’s game -- and suddenly you realize you have just stepped into the business world, where there are no promises that you will have a job in the greatest league in the world ... unless you earn it."

Johnson earned the chance to be No. 1 overall in the draft and he earned all of the confidence the Blues have that he will someday soon become a star in the NHL -- and not just in the eight-team prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., that St. Louis was involved in. There, Erik led all defensemen with two goals and three assists in three games.

"He’s primed and ready. He’s gifted," said Blues President John Davidson, still reminding everyone just how young Johnson is. "He’s not going to be Bobby Orr. He's going to go through stretches of good and bad, like Chris Pronger did, like everyone does.

"This is now a game against men for him. We know he’s strong and he’s smart and he’s dedicated to being a great, great player. But our team doesn't need Erik to go out and play 28 minutes. We need him to learn how to be a pro. We need him to grow and play to his strengths."

I write this column to let the rest of the NHL know that the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t cornered the market on top rookies -- even if has seemed that way the last few years with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney. This season, however, the Central Division boasts three of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year in Johnson in St. Louis and forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago.

Throw in Igor Grigorenko in Detroit and Derick Brassard in Columbus and you can see that there’s a good chance that someone from this division has a shot at being named the NHL’s top rookie. Only twice in the last 15 seasons has a team from the Central won this award: Chicago’s Ed Belfour in 1991 and St. Louis’ Barret Jackman in 2003.

I know that forwards generally figure more prominently in the Rookie of the Year balloting (10 forwards, three goalies and two defenseman have, in fact, won the award the last 15 seasons), but there are a couple of reasons apart from Erik’s No. 1 draft ranking and his skill that come into play for him to be very, very successful right now in St. Louis.

Erik Johnson looks to become just the third player in the last sixteen years to win the Calder trophy while playing in the NHL's Central division.
"I wouldn’t bet against him," Barret Jackman said of his new teammate. "Erik definitely gets it. You can see he respects the game and he’s like a sponge -- he listens and picks up things very quickly.

"I remember when I came into the NHL, consistency was my worst enemy, especially in such a long 82-game schedule. I’d have five good games and then kind of hit the wall. But I was lucky. I had guys I could turn to for advice. I remember asking Shjon Podein for some help in training camp. He said; ‘Who are you playing with?’ I told him; ‘Al MacInnis.’ He said; ‘Just give him the puck and get out of his way and you’ll be fine.’ "

The hard-hitting, passionate Jackman obviously did a little more than just get out of MacInnis’ way in beating out Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg for the Calder. Johnson is the kind of defenseman who can make an impact on offense as well as with the big hits like Jackman delivered.

And it’s important to note that MacInnis stood up and asked for a chance to mentor Johnson as well, offering him a chance to live at Al’s house.

Think about it, reflecting on last night’s game over corn flakes (Or do we still say Wheaties?) with Al MacInnis the next morning. Could like get any better for Johnson?

"How could I not say yes to that kind of an offer? Nor why would I not say yes?" Johnson smiled, recalling how he grew up watching and learning from the way MacInnis and Chris Pronger played for the Blues along with Colorado defenseman Rob Blake.

I’ll never forget MacInnis speaking of Johnson shortly after the Blues drafted him, saying; "For a big man, he's got great quickness and good speed to go along with the booming shot, an ability to make the good first pass out of the zone and be a presence as a quarterback on the power play. There’s no panic when he has the puck. That’s crucial for a young player ... and tough to teach. It’s a God-given talent -- and you can see there's more to come. Unlike some prospects who look like they might have already peaked, there’s a lot more upside to Erik Johnson."

MacInnis has also commented on how many youngsters kind of slow down and look around when they get the puck, but ... "Erik is not unlike the more skilled players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, who play even faster once they get the puck on their stick."

For now, Johnson said MacInnis is telling him to; "Keep it simple ... You don’t need to make any highlight-reel plays ... But, if you can make something happen, go for it."

Johnson won’t have to make things happen in St. Louis, where the Blues already have a pretty stable group of defensemen in place that includes Jackman and Jay McKee, Eric Brewer and Bryce Salvador, plus Christian Backman, along with Jeff Woywitka and Matt Walker.

And that’s the other major point that will help Johnson play to his strengths.

"When Andy Murray came in here last December, all of a sudden every defenseman was playing to his strengths," added Jackman. "Andy defined our jobs. He made it easier for all of us. Knowing how good Erik is offensively, I’d say Andy will spot him five-on-five (with another offensively skilled player like Backman) and give him his freedom to be creative on the power play."

The Blues have been starved for an offensive spark from the blue line since MacInnis and Pronger left a few years ago. Impact? That’s exactly what I expect Erik Johnson to make in St. Louis this season.

Around the Central Division -- There were times during his three-plus seasons in Dallas when Stars coach Dave Tippett wondered aloud what he would have to do to get Jason Arnott to be the player he thought the big center could be in Big D. Amazing how communication, experience and confidence works for some players, isn’t it? I say that because Arnott followed a 32-goal season in his last year in Dallas with 27 goals last season in Nashville. And he made such an impression in the Predators’ dressing room in his first season there that the team named him the fourth captain of the club, following the departure of defenseman Kimmo Timonen as a free agent to Philadelphia in July. ... Winger Martin Erat often goes under the radar in Nashville, but coach Barry Trotz recently singled him out as one of the players he

expects to score more (more than the 50 points he had last season). ... Looking for speed on the wings, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is using Kris Draper at left wing on a line centered by Valterri Filppula. Draper is always in the face of the opposition, but he showed he could be a goal-scoring contributor in 2003-04 when he netted 24 goals. Babcock wants a little more of that from Draper this season. Centers in Detroit now figure to be Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Filppula and Tomas Kopecky. And more of that speed and production on the wings is expected from Jiri Hudler and Igor Grigorenko. ... The big news in Columbus camp so far is the plan to experiment with Nikolai Zherdev at center on the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 line with Rick Nash and David Vyborny. Coach Ken Hitchcock told reporters that he had watched a lot of tape of Zherdev and noticed how often he would be rushing the puck up the middle of the ice and thought: Why not try the talented kid there? Getting renewed production from Zherdev, who dropped from 27 goals to 10 last season, is imperative. ... In-your-face kids like Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett really turned the heads of some scouts for the Jackets as they got to the finals of that eight-team prospect tournament in Traverse City. Boll, in particular, could be knocking on the door to the NHL in Columbus this year. ... St. Louis rarely takes a second look at a youngster in camp who hasn’t spent some time in the minors. That could change in a big way this year. We’ve already talked about No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson from the 2006 Draft. Well, scouts are also buzzing about St. Louis’ other first-round pick from that year -- center Patrik Berglund, who skated into the Traverse City tournament and was the leading scorer with four goals and six assists in four games. He’s bigger and stronger than last season, when the 6-4, 205-pounder scored 21 goals and 27 assists in just 35 games for Vasteras in Sweden’s Division II. ... That hard forechecking style that has become style in Chicago might just be replaced by more puck possession, according to coach Denis Savard. With more skill at center with the likes of veterans Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault and Kevyn Adams, plus 2006 No. 1 pick Jonathan Toews, Savard wants to see his centers make more plays with the puck. In other words, no more dump and chase.

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