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Johnson ready to lead Avs' defense corps

by Brian Hunter

Most of the attention given the Colorado Avalanche this summer revolved around the organization's revamping of the goaltender position -- not surprising for a team that yielded an NHL-worst 287 goals last season and finished 14th in the Western Conference.

However, if there's going to be playoff hockey in Denver for the second time in three seasons, up-and-coming Semyon Varlamov and veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere are going to need help from a defense that was porous in its own right.

To that end, the most important acquisition the Avalanche made might have come prior to the 2011 trade deadline, when they added talented young defenseman Erik Johnson in a blockbuster with the St. Louis Blues involving multiple players and draft picks.

Johnson, the No. 1 pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, provides size, skill and strength, and figures to be the centerpiece around which Colorado builds its blue line for years to come.

"Management addressed the issue of getting bigger on the back end," Johnson told "With Kyle Quincey coming back from injury, the signing of Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien, we have Ryan O'Byrne, who's a big guy, and Ryan Wilson - we're not going to be easy to play against anymore. We're going to be a big, rough, defending group.

"I think I can provide some stability and some composure back there. It's a younger group and leadership is something I'm comfortable doing, and helping young guys along and doing the right things to help us win hockey games. It's something I take a lot of pride in." -- Erik Johnson

"I think when we played teams like L.A. and San Jose in the past who are very big up front, we got pushed around a little bit too much. And I think with the group we have back there now on defense, we're going to be tough to play against and have a better group to defend with."

Johnson, who measures in at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, is poised to develop into the leader of that group even though he's only 23 years old and entering his fourth NHL season.

Part of a select group that features Brian Lawton, Mike Modano, Rick DiPietro and Patrick Kane as the only other U.S.-born players to be selected first in the draft, Johnson had immediate expectations placed on his shoulders when he entered the League with St. Louis following one season at the University of Minnesota.

"It was a great honor. Me and Pat talk about that -- we were good friends playing at the (U.S. National Team) Development Program together," said Johnson, who was born in Bloomington, Minn. "Expectations can be a little different for a defenseman -- it wasn't really a player who was going to come in and score 100 points like (Sidney) Crosby did his rookie year, so they have to be tempered a little bit being a defenseman.

"It puts pressure on you, but nonetheless you have pressure on you no matter what. It was a great honor to be selected first and I'm very proud of that, being the first Minnesotan to do that. But once you're drafted, you still have to make it and prove your worth. There's still not a day in the League that you go without having to prove yourself."

Following a solid rookie season in which Johnson had 5 goals and 33 points, and didn't turn 20 until March 21, adversity struck shortly before what was to be his second season. A golf cart mishap during a team outing led to Johnson tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee, requiring surgery that kept him out for the entire season.

He bounced back in 2009-10 with career highs of 10 goals and 39 points while also earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that won silver at the Vancouver Games, but it took longer before Johnson felt he was back at his pre-surgery best.

"Probably this (past) Christmas, it finally felt good," he said. "It's coming up on three years this September. Usually they say it takes about two years to feel 100 percent and I've dealt with some soreness and stuff for the last two years, but right after Christmas-time this year I just woke up one day and I didn't have any problems after skating or anything like that, so it's nice to have it be out of sight, out of mind."

Johnson's numbers with the Blues last season projected to dip slightly -- he had 5 goals and 19 points in 55 games -- when he was traded to the Avalanche on Feb. 19, along with forward Jay McClement and a 2011 first-round pick for forward Chris Stewart, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a conditional second-round pick.

Johnson quickly acclimated himself to his new surroundings and produced 3 goals and 10 points in 22 games for Colorado -- including the go-ahead goal in the third period in St. Louis just three days after he was traded.

"I wasn't entirely surprised (to be traded), just because I knew I hadn't played my best hockey," said Johnson, who stressed that he enjoyed his time in St. Louis. "But I think this is a great thing for my career. I think the big thing is Colorado wanted to get me and they gave up a lot to get me, and that's the light they see me in -- being a leader on defense, and it gives you a big boost of confidence when a team like that goes out and acquires you.

"When I got to Colorado, they just said go out and play your game, be the player that you can be, we're not going to put any restrictions on how you play. That gave me a big boost of confidence. That's something I lost in St. Louis."

With a fresh start, Johnson is ready to realize his full potential with the Avalanche -- including taking on a leadership role among a group of blueliners that will be counted on heavily in turning the team's fortunes around.

"I want to be and I have to be," he said of taking a lead role. "It's a role that I'm comfortable in and want to be in. I think I can provide some stability and some composure back there. It's a younger group and leadership is something I'm comfortable doing, and helping young guys along and doing the right things to help us win hockey games. It's something I take a lot of pride in; that's very important in order to have a winning team."
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