Top overall pick of 2006 entry draft gets two-year, $5.2 million deal
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- For Erik Johnson, it's been business as usual this summer on the ice.
Workouts have been frequent. Preparation for the upcoming season has been plentiful.
But off the ice, the story was definitely off kilter -- until now.
Johnson, 22, was the last remaining restricted free agent on the Blues without a contract. That all changed Monday when Johnson and the Blues came to terms on a two-year contract that will pay the top overall pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft $5.2 million.
Johnson, a Bloomington, Minnesota native who could not receive offer sheets after missing an entire season in 2008-09 with a knee injury, will earn $2.2 million for the upcoming season and $3 million in 2011-12.
With training camp set to get underway in a little over a month, it all boiled down to Johnson and agent Pat Brisson getting something done so Johnson can solely lay his focus on the ice. He's been in St. Louis all summer and working out frequently at the team's training facility at St. Louis Mills.
"We went back and forth for a couple months trying to figure out what we wanted to do and agreed to a deal on Friday," Johnson said Monday. "I'm extremely happy to get this done and get it off my mind and just focus on camp. I'm thrilled to be here in St. Louis. This is a great city and I couldn't be more pleased."
Johnson's deal is similar to the one the Blues recently gave to forward David Perron (two years, $4.3 million), and the team seemed insistent on going shorter term on a contract now as opposed to a lengthy deal. It's a way for the Blues to give these restricted free agents raises without breaking the salary cap but also giving them enough time to prove their value moving forward.
"That's exactly the way we focused on this," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "Coming out of their junior careers or their college careers and turning pro, they get their feet wet the first three years and all of the sudden now, they're ready to really describe how they're going to be as pros. Over the next two years, we're expecting these players to grow and get better.
"We always want to pay fair market value here. There's no question that we hope that we're coming to the bargaining table and these guys are getting substantial raises because that means they're excellent NHL players. That's our goal and I know that's their goal."
Negotiations were moving at a snail's pace because the two sides differed on opinions to the length of a contract. Johnson's camp was looking for a long-term deal (likely in the five- to six-year range) while the Blues remained firm in insisting on a shorter term contract.
In the end and with camp right around the corner, Johnson wanted a contract in place so he can focus on the task at hand: improve his game while vaulting the Blues up in the standings.
"That's what the Blues wanted to explore and I had no problem with that," Johnson said. "Whatever they wanted to do, I was happy to do. In my situation, I was just happy to get the deal done. I've said this all along: I'm playing hockey, the thing I love to do as a job. Getting paid is a bonus. This is just awesome that I can continue to play in the NHL and make a living that way."
The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Johnson, whose salary cap hit will be $2.6 million, tallied 15 goals and 57 assists over two seasons (148 games), including 10 goals and 29 assists last season.
"It took some time, but Erik's a big part of what we've got going forward," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We feel not just on the ice (but) off the ice, what he can provide is a guy who's been through some battles and is ready to take his game to the next level. He can be a guy that leads the charge in that area. We feel he's got a lot of those qualities. We certainly feel he's just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do for a full 60 minutes and we're awfully excited about that."
The Blues now have all their players signed moving forward with roughly $14.5 million in cap space available, and the $1.33 million cap hit of defenseman Jay McKee, who they bought out prior to last season, will come off the books after this season.
"It's important to get everyone signed," Armstrong said. "Certainly being the first part of August now, we can focus in on the season and preparing for September and training camp.
"A lot of the credit goes to all the players that have signed now. I think there's a real energy and a real focus to get off to a good start this season. I think our players see a great opportunity now. There's a lot of openings. We're looking for players to take a bigger role. Having everyone signed is just the first step in that."
As Perron pointed out after he signed his contract a few weeks back, the passing of the torch is underway for the Blues. Johnson is fully aware and ready to accept the challenge.
"I think the guard has kind of been passed over to the young guys this year," Johnson said. "We have a big opportunity that lies ahead of us to take control of the team and take on leadership roles and really define who we are as players. We have a big step to take and we plan on doing that this year."
The Blues' shorter term contract offer is the Blues' way of saying Johnson has plenty of upside and they'd like to see where it goes.
"The upside is still untapped," Armstrong said. "I think he's starting to get to that point."
Payne notes that what the Blues got from Johnson towards the end of last season is the player he can be for an 82-game season.
"We felt he finished extremely well," Payne said. "We also see some of those game-breaking abilities and moments where he can kind of take charge of a hockey game. The elite defensemen are able to do that. He showed some periods and some moments in hockey games late in the season last year where he made a conscious decision that it was time. It was time for Erik to take over and make some things happen for our hockey team. We want to make sure that happens from start of hockey games right through to the end of them. He's got that ability.
"There's certainly some times where you recognize that here's a talented athlete and we're certainly glad he's in a Blues uniform and locked up for the next couple years."
Armstrong and the Blues, who were relatively quiet this summer aside from signing their own players and the acquisition of goalie Jaroslav Halak, are banking on untapped ability from a number of their players. It's something the players are appreciative of, including Johnson.
"I kind of like the stance that they've taken," Johnson said. "I think they believe in the group that we have. Obviously with the addition of Halak, he'll make our team strong. Obviously Mase (Chris Mason) was a great player for us, too, but we've got a younger goalie who is proven in the playoffs. Our younger players are a year older. I think David Backes and Brad Boyes will return to where they were in years past. We just have so much potential on this team. We're a team waiting to explode. I think you're going to see that this year. This team is ready to take a big, big step."