Perhaps that’s not the best headline but it’s my column so we’re going with it.
There’s been a ton of hype about Colorado’s blueline this summer, which is a new thing, but very little mention of the longest tenured member and defensive captain. Cale Makar’s debut in the playoffs was electric, Sam Girard’s excellent play over the last two seasons earned him a 7-year extension and the Bowen Byram selection in the entry draft doubled down on what could be the most talented D group in the league a few years from now. Most thoughts about Erik Johnson lean towards the concepts of age catching up with a veteran player or hope of waiving a no-movement clause in the upcoming expansion draft.
EJ has spent 8+ seasons with the Avs and is signed for another four, which means he been through it all: Sacco, Roy, Bednar, Lacroix, Sherman, Sakic, several rebuilds, the lost season and finally optimism grounded in reality. He arrived as a talented but unproven 23 year old in the Spring of 2011 and barring a move will finish out his current contract at age 35 in the Spring of 2023. Instead of contriving reasons why he should be moved, I’m looking for reasons why keeping him is just fine.
The main issue most fans have is what seemed like age catching up with Johnson this season. One obvious counter to that is the need for shoulder surgery after the playoffs. Thanks to the Avs non-information policy we don’t know if this was chronic or traumatic or when/how it began affecting his play. Around March 1st the staff started to limit his minutes somewhat, before that the only obvious outlier game was against the Kings in late January where he left in the 1st period with UBI and didn’t return until after the All-Star Break, which made up his only two scratches of the season. I tend to think the shoulder injury was something chronic that was aggravated several times during the season so cleaning that up could make a solid difference in various areas of his game.
Another issue was playing 80 games for just the second time in his career. His 92 regular season & playoff games combined are the most he’s played in one season in his entire life. We usually talk about rookies hitting the wall but with Johnson averaging 64 games played over his career this could easily be a case of a player experiencing an unfamiliar workload and having to adjust on the fly. The good news here is that while athletes tend to lose speed as time goes on, endurance usually peaks during the late 20’s and early 30’s.
The final issue was a change in role. Over the past 5 years he’s gradually gone from the Avs #1 all-situations guy to more of an even-strength minute muncher that plays more PK than PP. Tyson Barrie took over his PP1 role years ago and Sam Girard has taken over PP2. EJ’s power play minutes went from 1:48 per game last season to just 20 seconds this season. This had a fairly profound effect on his scoring. PP usage was generally limited to popping on for the last few seconds while transitioning back to 5v5 play so one would expect his shot and scoring metrics to crater, which they did. His power play heyday was around 5 years ago, he’s been solid since with consistent individual CF (around 11 per hour) and xGF (around 0.75 per hour) numbers but the Avs have better weapons now and he’s also not a great fit with the system. Over his career he’s scored over 40% of his points on PP so a drop in overall scoring is more of a usage effect than age regression and not something I’m concerned about.
Basically 3 D’s plus Zadorov (sort of) killed all the penalties last season. EJ had the most total minutes and was within a few seconds of Cole & Nemeth of average PK TOI/gm. It was also the most PK minutes he’s ever had in a season. Bringing in Ian Cole dropped his average from 2018’s 3:41 per game down to 3:05 but that was a significant portion of his total ice time, about 15%. I broke down the PK in great detail a few weeks ago so I encourage you to check that out if you haven’t already but as far as Johnson’s play is concerned the main conclusion was that once he and Nemeth became the top PK pair the unit had it’s best stretch of the season. This was late in the year so I assume that shoulder injury or not this is a part of EJ’s role he’s going to be fine in going forward.
One thing that didn’t change much was the role of top-pair defenseman. He and Sam Girard played together most of the time and very often behind the MacKinnon line against the toughest competition. Looking at EJ’s WOWY’s, the lower in the lineup he played (aka easier competition) the more on-ice shot share he had, with the frat line being an outlier (no surprise). Individually his shot generation and share metrics along with game pace were fine and mostly tops of the rest of the D-corps behind Barrie. Since they played so much together, he and Girard’s on-ice numbers are very similar but EJ’s individual metrics were slightly but consistently better than Sam’s this past season so the conclusion is that he wasn’t an anchor.
Statistically at least, despite the injury EJ was the same old guy last year. That doesn’t completely pass the eye test, many called him slow or slower whether in general skating or what have you and I do agree with that. The thing is that it didn’t seem to curb his effectiveness on the ice that much. Others have pointed out that his hits and penalties were down significantly. If you take that as a measure of aggression then maybe there’s something to it but the results didn’t suffer overall. On the one hand I don’t like to use hits/PIMs as a need but on the other I like to see the Avs playing physical when they need to. Other than one elbowing major against the Blues (which I’m sure was deserved) he didn’t get a red mist penalty or suspension this year, which is nice.
For the most part I think the concerns about Johnson’s age affecting his game were overblown this year. That doesn’t mean it won’t this coming season or beyond and every year he’s played 70+ games with the Avs he hasn’t made it to game 50 the next, so there’s that. Going forward, EJ will be playing more and more of a defensively focused role with his TOI gradually dropping from the top spot to around the #4 level as he moves into his mid-30’s but that’s still a few years off. Going into this season I’m looking for him to be healthier, slightly quicker by the eye test and more physical than he was for most of last year. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.