Erik Johnson is likely the only defenseman in the world who’s thankful for Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Sixth months into his NHL career, the St. Louis freshman is learning the nuances of a position most everyone agrees is the toughest in the league to master - even for a big, talented kid from Bloomington, Minn., who went first overall in 2006.
“He’s had some real good things happen to him and there’s other nights where he looks like a young player,” said Blues coach Andy Murray, who’s scratched Johnson on occasion when he felt the 19-year-old needed a mental break during a dense cluster of games.
Johnson, who jumped to the NHL after one year of college hockey with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, had something bad happen to him early on when he sustained a foot fracture blocking a shot against Phoenix in the season opener.
The injury went undetected for a spell and Johnson actually scored the game-winner – his first NHL goal – against Los Angeles two nights before an MRI revealed the injury and he went on the shelf for a month.
“It was a little bit of a setback, but I battled back and I feel like I’ve been pretty good this year,” said the 6-foot-4, 222-pound Johnson. “But I still know I have a lot of room to get better and keep improving.”
When your name is called before every other player in the draft, expectations come with the territory. But Johnson, buried under the likes of Patrick Kane and Nicklas Backstrom in the Calder race, believes what’s expected of him differs greatly from the two hot shot forwards drafted first overall in succession ahead of him, Ovechkin in ’04 and Crosby in ’05.
“I think maybe it’s a better thing having those big-name forwards drafted first ahead of me because I’m not supposed to be like that; I’m not supposed to put up 100 points,” said Johnson, who has three goals and 17 points through 36 games. “I’m supposed to be a defenseman and that’s my game. ‘D’ take a bit longer, for the most part.
“There’s a little pressure, but I’d say I’d start to feel it four years down the road if I’m not the player I’m supposed to be.”
The guy Johnson has been paired with most often this year, Jay McKee, doesn’t think that’s going to be an issue.
“He’s got all the tools, that’s for sure, to be a great player in this league,” said McKee, a veteran of 11 NHL seasons. “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.
“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.”
The way McKee sees it, Johnson is in a better position to absorb some of the harder lessons because of his hulking frame.
“Where he has a huge advantage is his size,” said McKee, who also broke into the league at 19. “I know when I started, I was only 175 pounds; I was a string bean and I think the big difference is the colleges and junior teams are putting more focus on building the kids up.
“When I was in junior, we’d have our fitness testing, but it wasn’t what it is now. Players now who are devoted to being an NHL player, some of them in junior have fitness and nutrition coaches who help guide them. I was eating my grilled cheese and cream of bacon soup thinking that was going to put the weight on.”
McKee isn’t the only person Johnson can lean on for advice – culinary or otherwise – when he needs it. The rookie lives with Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis, who has transitioned from St. Louis’ blueline to the Blues front office as vice-president of hockey operations.
“He’s really opened his home to me,” said Johnson, adding dinner conversation only turns to hockey when he solicits MacInnis’ opinions. “His family has been tremendous to me and I’ve just had a great time living with them.”
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