Just when Erik Johnson
thought he had this game figured out, he skated into a professional career, where everything is different.
The schedule is longer. Your air mileage increases. Your ice time decreases. Skepticism grows. Results are all that matter.
Johnson, the St. Louis Blues’ 19-year-old defenseman and No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, is fully immersed now, but he’s still only learning what playing in the NHL is all about.
“You really don’t know what to expect. You think you do, but you don’t,” Johnson told NHL.com. “It’s such a grind. You see the schedule and you see all the games you have to play, but you don’t understand how hard it is.”
That’s why the learning curve, especially for young defensemen, is always pretty steep. But in Johnson’s case, it’s a little flatter because he’s a young defenseman who has proved through three-quarters of the season that he really does have the goods.
Johnson, who sat a month early this season with a fractured foot, is a plus-3 with 23 points, including 20 assists, through his first 48 NHL games. His ice time has fluctuated -- from a season-high 22:09 on Dec. 26 to a season-low 11 minutes on Feb. 14, back up to 21:39 only eight days later -- but he averages nearly 17 minutes per game as the Blues’ sixth defenseman.
“I feel like I’ve developed pretty well this year so far,” Johnson said. “Obviously there are things I can get better at, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made. Hopefully I start coming into my own in the next couple of years, but I’m feeling pretty good about myself now.”
But when told that members of the organization have publicly stated they think he’s two or three years away from reaching his full potential, Johnson responded; “That might be the organization’s opinion, but hopefully it can be sooner than that.”
Johnson played only one year at his Minnesota high school and the allotted two in the United States National Team Development Program. He graduated to the University of Minnesota, but played only one season with the Gophers before signing his entry-level contract with the Blues.
He could have stayed at Minnesota for another season, but Johnson admits he was ready and it was a decision he made solely on his own, proving his maturity.
“I didn’t have a great first year at Minnesota and that was hard for me, but at the end of the year you have to make that decision that I knew was coming,” said Johnson, who had 24 points in 41 games for the Gophers last season. “Getting it (my contract) out of the way when I did was important. I had the support from my friends and family. They kind of knew that was going to be my decision, and I’m really happy withy my decision.”
Johnson said he didn’t feel the pressure to sign after just one collegiate season just because he was a top overall draft pick. And, he still doesn’t feel the pressure to perform despite being the No. 1 pick in 2006.
“Being a defenseman I almost think there is a little less pressure because I don’t have to put up these gaudy numbers that Pat Kane and Sidney Crosby are putting up,” he said. “Being a defenseman is a little different, but at the same time I want to be worthy of where I was chosen and be the player I’m supposed to be.”
Blue defenseman Jay McKee is witness to that development.
“He’s got all the tools, that’s for sure, to be a great player in this league,” McKee, an 11-year veteran, recently told The Hockey News. “He’s starting off in the toughest position to get into on defense and he’s doing a good job with it. He makes mistakes here and there and does things that will just take a little bit of learning for him to improve on, plays in our own end sometimes he tries to be a little too fancy and beat one or two guys.
|Johnson, in fact, admits that the area where he needs the most work is behind the blue line.
“He’s learning well and he’s one of those guys who pays attention to detail, so he’s going to be very successful in this League.”
Johnson, in fact, admits that the area where he needs the most work is behind the blue line. He said because the forwards are so skilled in the NHL he’s realizing there is no room for even slip on the ice or lose an edge.
“First and foremost you have to take responsibility in your own end, but being a guy that likes to jump into the offense you have to worry about that too,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty tough position to play, especially being a first-year guy. You have to adjust to some things, but I think I’ve gotten better every day and hope I keep getting better.”
Ironically, Johnson thinks he actually benefited from his month-long hiatus due to injury. Whereas some players, especially rookies, feel the need to be on the ice in order to learn, Johnson said his time rehabbing the fracture was necessary for his growth, too.
“I think it really helped increase my practice habits,” he said. “It caused me to work real hard to get back in the lineup because I was a rookie. It stung being out for 10 games with a foot fracture, but I think it came around to help me in the long run.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.