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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
Erik Johnson admires NHL defensemen Rob Blake and Chris Pronger.

That seems only fitting as Johnson is projected to surpass both defensemen as the league’s premier blue-liner over the course of his career.

Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 222-pounder, is considered the top prospect for Saturday’s NHL Entry Draft at the General Motors Place in Vancouver. The event will be televised on OLN in the United States at 6 p.m..

Both the NHL Central Scouting Service and Red Line Report have Johnson atop their rankings. Red Line Report even goes so far to say that Johnson is the “best prospect on defense in the past 15 years.”

So, it’s expected Johnson’s name will be the first called when the St. Louis Blues make the first-overall selection.

However, Johnson wouldn’t mind going to the Penguins with the second-overall choice.

“That’d be pretty good playing with Sidney [Crosby] and Evgeni Malkin and all those other great guys, but obviously it’d be a dream just to go anywhere in the NHL,” he said. “St. Louis, Pittsburgh or wherever, it’s going to be a thrill.”

Johnson played for the U.S. National Under-18 team this past season. He racked up 33 points (11+22) and 57 penalty minutes in 38 games. Also, Johnson helped guide Team USA to the gold medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships. He registered 10 points (4+6) and 27 penalty minutes in six games. He added four points (1+4) in seven games for Team USA at the World Junior Championship as well.

Regardless, Johnson prides himself in playing sound defense as well as contributing consistently on offense.

“I think I can play both ways on the ice,” he said. “If I had to compare myself to someone, I’d say Rob Blake because he’s right-handed and he’s a big boy.”

That’s not exactly a bad comparison as Blake has been one of the NHL’s top defensemen for over a decade.

However, Johnson knows he has a long way to go before he can rank himself among the NHL’s elite players. He doesn’t want to rush his development, either. He plans to honor his commitment to the University of Minnesota in the fall.

“I am pretty firm. I have always wanted to play for Minnesota and still have pretty big intentions on doing that,” he said. “I think anything can change, though. Whatever team drafts me and thinks I am ready [to play professionally] – it’ll just be a family decision I make with my adviser.”

Chances are good that Johnson will spend at least a season or two with the Golden Gophers. He joins one of the nation’s top programs and is part of one of the country’s top recruiting classes that includes fellow NHL draft prospect Kyle Okposo. In Minnesota, Johnson will join fellow Golden Gopher Phil Kessel, who is expected to be drafted a pick or two after Johnson in the NHL Entry Draft.

In addition, Johnson will join Penguins 2004 second-round pick Alex Goligoski on the Golden Gophers’ blue line. The two should form an impressive defensive combination as Goligoski was one of the nation’s top d-men. He earned 2005-06 NCAA Division I All-USCHO Honorable Mention honors, according to U.S. College Hockey Online.

Also, Goligoski, who was a sophomore last year, earned INCH All-America Second Team and All-WCHA Second Team honors a season after being named to the 2004-05 WCHA All-Rookie Team.

Johnson got a taste of the NHL at the NHL Draft Combine in Toronto, where he and a bevy of top prospects were put through a variety of medical and physical tests as well as interviews with NHL team officials.

“It’s pretty intense. Going through the interviews is also pretty draining,” he said. “Going through all this testing also wears on you mentally. So, it was good to get the day over with.”

Central Scouting report on Erik Johnson: is a powerful skater with a long, smooth stride who has tremendous acceleration in open ice…is very strong on his feet and is an outstanding backward skater who has excellent agility for his size…an offensive minded defenseman who has very good peripheral vision – makes the transition from defense to offense quickly and likes to rush with the puck which results in scoring chances…makes a solid, crisp first pass accurately, is also very accurate when making the long pass and possesses a hard, accurate shot from the point…is very dangerous on the power play with the one-timer…pinches well and is seldom caught out of position…a solid positional player in the defensive zone – is difficult to beat one-on-one…reads the play well…has a very quick stick with a long reach that he uses effectively…an excellent shot blocker whose timing is outstanding…exhibits very good hockey sense and understanding of the game…has great size, strength and physical presence and is a very competitive player who works hard every shift…uses his size and strength to his advantage in the corners and in front of the net…delivers solid body checks and finishes his checks with authority…opponents are aware of his presence on the ice and he adapts well to game conditions, playing with an edge when necessary…a disciplined player who leads by example – he is respected by teammates and opponents…is very focused and coachable…member of U.S. Under-17 team in 2004-05…member of the U.S. Under-18 team for the 2005 World Championships…member of the U.S. World Junior team for 2005-06 and will attend the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2006.

Personal Profile: Nicknames are EJ and E…favorite team is the Minnesota Wild…favorite players are Colorado’s Rob Blake and Edmonton’s Chris Pronger…wears jersey No. 6, but says that he changes numbers every year…says his parents have been the most influential on his career because “they are always encouraging me and supporting me no matter what”…patterns his style of play after Rob Blake because “he is two-way and smart”…outside of sports, Johnson most admires his parents for how hard they work in their lives…most memorable hockey game played was USA vs. Canada at the 2006 World Junior Championships because of the “amazing atmosphere”…most memorable hockey game watched was Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals between the Canucks and the Rangers because “I knew then that hockey was what I wanted to do”…favorites include: Seinfeld (TV show), Gladiator (movie), Vince Vaughn (actor), Jennifer Aniston (actress), Rob Thomas and Rascal Flatts (musicians)…if he could have dinner with any three people, he would invite John F. Kennedy Jr., Jennifer Aniston and Russell Crowe, because “it would be interesting and an experience that I would remember forever.”

(Penguins to hold Draft party at Buffalo Wild Wings.)

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