Avs Training Camp
Erik Johnson has made it back … but to what role?
All right, let’s see the hands of those who believed the Avalanche would buy out the final two seasons of the contract of Erik Johnson, which called for the veteran defenseman to make $6 million through 2022-23.
Come on, nobody thought the Avalanche would buy him out in July? I’m sure …
OK, there’s a hand sheepishly raised here, a hand there … now more. It’s far from unanimous, but that’s more believable.
I thought the Avs would, too.
Yet Joe Sakic and the collaborative hockey staff decision-making process either didn’t give the possibility much consideration, though it would have provided more cap flexibility and also was consistent with the emphasis on youth; or debated it and decided Johnson would be worth that price, that jettisoning would be premature.
This is jarring to realize: Now, at age 33, he has been with Colorado more than 10 years after the early 2011 trade with the Blues, and this will be his 11th full season with the Avs if he’s still with them next spring.
But he’s back and skating hard in training camp after playing only four games last season because of concussion problems. He was hoping to return at some point if the Avs advanced past the second round, but they didn’t.
The major issue now is not so much whether he has recovered — that seems evident — but how diminished his role will be on the back line.
He’s still a leader, commanding respect, and remains well-liked, even as the roster evolves. That still means something, especially on a young team and even during a training camp where many of the guys on the ice should be calling him, “Sir.”
First things first.
How is he?
“I feel good,” Johnson said Friday at Family Sports Center. “It took a lot longer to recover. It was a concussion. not from the hit (from Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway), more so from the fall. It just took me a while to get back to normal. It was frustrating, most frustrating for me because I’m the one going through it. So it was kind of an annoying process to go through, but now I feel good and am just excited to get back out there and be with the guys. . .
“Usually you come into camp as an older guy and you’re not too excited. But I’ve just been invigorated and super-excited to get back out there.”
Yet even if he is effective, it’s apparent the days of him being the bedrock but hybrid defenseman playing marathon minutes in the top pair are, if not over, at least are no longer the norm.
And he’s not complaining, especially after a brief battle with COVID-19.
“There was some adversity, but I think you have to keep things in perspective,” Johnson said. “A lot of people were going through some very serious illness with COVID. I got over it quickly, got an injury playing professional hockey, a sport I love to play, I’m lucky to play, so I think you just have to look at the bright side. Yeah, it was not fun to go through, but it’s not that much compared to what some people had to deal with.”
Johnson also waived his no-trade clause in advance of the July 21 expansion draft so Colorado could protect another defenseman before the Seattle Kraken made its selections.
“Just with the way last season, I knew I wasn’t going to get picked up,” Johnson said. “Joe called me sometime in the spring and I said yes right away. With the team we have here it would have been, I think, it would have been a not-team first move to not waive it. I obviously love Denver and didn’t want to leave, but I just kind of rolled the dice and figured that they wouldn’t take me. I was happy to stay here. Luckily, I’m back here and it was a no-brainer to waive it.”
He’s in a tandem with Bo Byram — who is 20 and looks as if he just left junior high — in the first days of camp. That could be illustrative of a possible balancing approach, depending on injuries, the effects of a compressed schedule and renewed full-league road schedules, and more.
“Bo’s great,” Johnson said. “The sky’s the limit for him. He kind of went through his own injury trouble last year. He skates just like (Scott) Niedermayer did when I played against Scott a few years ago before he retired. He’s only going to get better and better and if I can help expedite that process, I’ll be glad to do so…. What once was kind of a weak spot for our organization on the back end …” — hello, Patrick Roy! — “… is now probably one of our strengths.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Johnson’s well-traveled World Junior, World Cup and Olympic teammate, defenseman Jack “No Relation” Johnson, also is in camp on a pro tryout.
“Jack’s a great guy, known him a long time,” Erik Johnson said. “He’s good. He’s always skated well, keeps himself in good shape. With (Devon) Toews being out for the start of the year, there’s always room for depth on the back end with all the injuries that have gone in the past few years. He looks good and I’m hopeful that he has a good camp.”
I asked Avalanche coach Jared Bednar whether he’s still expecting that bedrock role for Johnson, or whether his role will be downgraded.
His answer eventually encompassed a look at the roster evolution and ice time expectations for other veterans, too, but he said this about Erik Johnson: “We had a good feeling last year going in, where he was the most productive. We have those numbers for a lot of guys … Erik will be the same thing. We have to watch him play. It’s a long time off now, he’s getting to be an older player. I still think he’s a guy who can play in our top four.”
That’s a step back, but not a huge one.
But consider the fulfilling ride Johnson has had, progressing from the kid who talked his father, Bruce, into flooding the backyard to create a rink in Bloomington, a Twin Cities suburb.
“I spent a lot of time out there after dinner and especially before school,” Erik once told me. “It was heaven for me.”
He went on to be the NHL’s top overall pick in the 2006 draft … and beyond.
And now he’s winding down.
POSTSCRIPT: When Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog met the media on the first day of camp, I wrote about — among other things — the fact that as a thoroughbred racehorse owner, Erik Johnson has been co-owner of successful horses named Landeskog, now retired at age 5; Mackinnon(sic), one of the top 2-year-olds this year and a likely Triple Crown race campaigner in 2022. That story has been updated with Johnson’s response to my questions about his horse involvement from when he was made available Friday. That column is here.
Terry Frei is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html