Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson on on the Avs’ stunning success, Matt Duchene trade
Defenseman Erik Johnson has been on an eight-year roller-coaster ride.
He was acquired by the Colorado Avalanche in February 2011 in a deal that saw defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk go to the St. Louis Blues. Johnson and the Avs missed the playoffs the next three seasons before coach Patrick Roy “saved” the team for one season, leading Colorado to the Central Division title in 2013-14.
That was, in turns out, the top of the coaster — the precipitous drop over the next three seasons saw the Avalanche go from 90 points to 82 points to Roy stunning the hockey world with his August 2016 resignation to Colorado’s 48-point season under first-year coach Jared Bednar in 2016-17.
Now the coaster has rocketed back up: If not for the Vegas Golden Knightsthe Avalanche would be the biggest shocker in the NHL this season. Colorado used a recent 10-game winning streak to creep onto the wild-card bubble. Johnson, 29, has seven goals and 14 assists in 45 games while averaging 25:45 per night — more than four minutes more on average than any other Colorado player.
ESPN spoke with Johnson this week about the Avalanche, their out-of-nowhere success and how changing personnel — including the blockbuster Matt Duchene trade — helped establish that success.
ESPN: What were your honest expectations coming into this season?
Johnson: I don’t think we set any certain goals. We knew, from an outsider’s perspective, that no one was going to give us a chance to do much of anything. Frankly, they shouldn’t have, given the year we had last year. But with the turnover on the roster that we had, we knew we’d be more competitive. Younger, faster. As a group, we took it upon ourselves to not care what anyone else thought, and to just go out there and play.
ESPN: Things behind the scenes seemed pretty chaotic last season, with Patrick Roy abruptly leaving and Jared Bednar getting the head coaching gig so late. How does this year contrast with that?
Johnson: It wasn’t a fair situation for [Bednar] to come in at that point in the season. If you look at the turnover on the roster, and I don’t know how many guys exactly changed over, but a handful of them were over 30 years old, and definitely not on the upswing of their career. That’s not a knock on them. That’s just kinda how the league is trending — to younger, faster players. The injection of those guys on the roster have made a world of difference.
From the time we won the division, four years ago, I think there are only four guys left from that team. [Editors’ note: We counted six.] There have been interchanging parts in those ensuing years, and I think this is a good group now, on and off the ice. Every day we reset our attitude. Never be satisfied.
ESPN: In terms of attitude, does it make a difference to go from veterans stuck in the muck with the franchise for a few years to younger guys who haven’t been there?
Johnson: We made sure, at the beginning of the year, that there needed to be a really strong role acceptance this season. We didn’t need any attitude where guys weren’t happy with their ice time, or were pouting and complaining about it. We said, “If you have an issue, don’t be a bad teammate. Go to the coach. Go to the GM. We just don’t want any bad attitudes in the room.”
We set that off at the start of the year, and it has worked. Like, Matt Nieto was a scratch the first four games of the year. But he had a great attitude, and he came back and has been one of the most important parts of one of our top lines so far. Guys have been more accepting of their roles.
ESPN: The team going younger meant more responsibility for the veteran leaders like yourself, which I guess brings us to the topic most people discuss regarding the Avalanche this season: Matt Duchene being traded. GM Joe Sakic has talked about how he kept the veteran leadership group in the loop on Matt’s situation. How important was that in order to keep things on track for you, and to calm things down?
Johnson: Joe had his finger on the pulse. He knew what was going on. He came to us and said he understood that Matt didn’t want to be part of the Avalanche anymore, and that was his decision. We knew that Joe was going to do what was in the best interest on the organization, and I think he did that. He took a lot of heat early on, but I think the move was the right one, and I like the pieces that he got in return.
ESPN: You were quoted by NHL.com recently as saying, “The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work.” Many felt that was a shot at Duchene. Was it?
Johnson: No. It’s kinda of funny, but they cut out the part of my quote where I said, “This isn’t a direct shot at Matt,” which, of course, is just how that works.
It was just speaking in general about how much we wanted to make things work in Colorado. If you didn’t, then you move on. That’s with any team. If someone didn’t want to be there, then you want them out of the room, off the team. For anyone in pro sports. It wasn’t a direct insult. It’s just how our group felt, generally.
ESPN: You and Matt played so long together in Denver. Usually when guys want out, you hear it was a business decision and leave it at that. But did you take him jumping ship a little more personally, given that history?
Johnson: Yeah. He was the guy I played with for the longest time on the team. I understood where he was coming from, and why he didn’t want to be a part of the Avalanche anymore. I don’t hold any ill will against him for it. It’s his decision. I think he got the move he was looking for. We all move on.
ESPN: The line of Nathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog has been outstanding. How much of a trickle-down effect does it have on the rest of the team, when you have a line that’s this dominant?
Johnson: It’s a lot of fun. I’m out there with them a lot and … it’s a lot more fun when you spend more time in their zone than in the D-zone. They get the puck, and they’re so dynamic. They’re arguably the top line in the league right now. But on the nights when other teams have shut them down, we’ve gotten secondary scoring, which has been the real key.
ESPN: I’m trying to figure out who you just ticked off more with that “best line” claim: Boston fans or Dallas fans?
Johnson: [Laughs] Arguably, right?
ESPN: Like any true hot taker, always leave wiggle room. Now, behind you on the ice, you’ve got goalie Jonathan Bernier having the finest season of his career. He was an addition to the team in the offseason, so you haven’t obviously played much with him, but what is he doing that has worked?
Johnson: Most of the pucks that he’s saving are being saved without there being a second or third whack at it. He’s also a pretty underrated puck handler, making some good passes for us, starting the breakout at times, playing the third “D” back there. He also doesn’t give up on plays. He’s made three or four highlight-reel saves this year that has kept us in games.
He’s so composed, under control in the net. You don’t see many goalies start 11 in a row and win 10 of them.
ESPN: You’ve played a bunch with Nikita Zadorov this season, and it wasn’t on my radar how good he’s been until a bunch of Avalanche fans started to tell me that maybe Buffalo didn’t win the Ryan O’Reilly trade after all.
Johnson: You can’t be quick to judge trades like that. I mean, when I first got traded to Colorado, a lot of people weren’t happy about it, and it worked out for us in the long run. It’s a similar thing with Z. We got two really good young pieces in him and [J.T. Compher]. And [Zadorov] has been a huge asset for me, since we got back from Sweden. Made my life easier to have a big guy like that, helping to shut down other teams’ top lines.
ESPN: How’s the communication between you two?
Johnson: He’s a guy who’s not lacking confidence in any facet of life, so he probably thinks he speaks better English than I do.
ESPN: When you win 10 in a row, and you look up and all it’s done is get you on the wild-card bubble, it speaks to how the Central Division is the group of death this season. What’s it like competing in a division like that?
Johnson: It’s the toughest division in hockey right now, and the West is a battle. If we found out at the start of the year that we’d win 10 games in a row, we’d think we’d be easily in a playoff spot. That’s certainly not the case. We have a lot of work left to do. There’s no game you can take lightly.
ESPN: Were you a fan of the 1-through-8 format? Because it would appear that format would have really helped the Central Division teams this season.
Johnson: I liked it better, but I get why they did the wild card. It kinda creates some more rivalries in the division. The 1-through-8 would have benefited the division for sure, but that’s just the way it is.