Saturday, September 18, 2010

Johnson comes long way in short time

No. 1 overall pick in 2006 has matured into
complete player, entrusted with assistant captaincy

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It seems like only yesterday when the Blues made an 18-year-old from Bloomington, Minnesota the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft.

It was the summer of 2006 when a young but highly touted kid from the U.S. National Team Development Program -- bound for the University of Minnesota -- that was the first player to step to the podium at Vancouver's GM Place. It was the beginning of a lifelong journey on the road to the National Hockey League.

Four years later for Erik Johnson, there have been some bumps along the way -- a significant knee injury that sidelined the Blues' defenseman for the entire 2008-09 season -- but the process of development on and off the ice has been quite precocious.

Johnson's ability on the ice is no hidden secret, and his production of a season ago (10 goals, 29 assists) is just a prelude of what's to come in the coming years. But it's Johnson's maturation process that has sprouted by leaps and bounds.

And recently, somebody has taken notice: Blues management and coaching staff. Johnson was awarded one of four assistant captain A's this season by coach Davis Payne. It's something the 22-year-old Johnson considers special. And it's a role he fully entends to embrace after Payne gave Johnson a glowing endorsement.

"It says a lot about where we think Erik is as a player, it says a lot about where we think he is as a person," Payne said. "He's a guy who's got a lot of pride in not only his performance but the St. Louis Blues' performance and where we're going as an organization right here in this city. He's a guy who's got very strong beliefs in that direction, he's also a guy who relates and speaks well and takes that younger portion of our hockey team and gives them a voice. We feel he's going to have a little bit of time to, within the group, kind of monitor how things work. He's a guy we expect a strong example and a strong voice to come from now and down the road."

What it also does is officially signify that the Blues have ushered out the old and brought in the new. It's not a knock on some of the older veterans such as Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya and Darryl Sydor but more of a changing of the guard.

"It's a big honor. ... I've put a lot of work in the off-season. I think that's a big thing about setting a standard and showing the young guys that the summer's just as important as the winter when you're playing," Johnson said. "I'm a younger guy, but I think that I work hard and set a good example and try and take younger guys under my wing and just be an all-around leader. More than just being vocal, I think it's so much more. It's how you set the work ethic out on the ice and so many more other things off the ice that I think I can help the guys with and become a big, key piece for this team -- in the locker room and on the ice."

It's kind of strange when Johnson talks about the "younger" guys, since he's still one himself. He found himself Saturday for the first practice session of training camp talking things over with Blues trainer Ray Barile.

"I was like, 'Man, I feel like an old guy out here right now,'" Johnson joked. "(However), still being 22, that's a good thing though. I'm playing with Brett Ponich (in camp) trying to help him along. I was just in his shoes a couple years ago. It's nice to have an older guy show you the way and have a shoulder to lean on and just that extra comfort knowing what to do in the drills.

"I'm a younger guy, but I'm an older guy and I need to play like one and I need to lead the way like one."

Johnson, along with David Backes, Barret Jackman and Alex Steen will wear the 'A' this season, as Eric Brewer will serve as captain. But just because those guys will wear a letter this season doesn't mean each member won't have a prominent voice. It will be a collective effort that will carry this group on. And they look forward to the challenges that face each one of them.

"It kind of feels like you've got a job and you just got a big promotion," forward T.J. Oshie said. "You're excited about that. We're going to do the best we can and set a good example. That's kind of the way we feel right now. I want to step in, and I know I'm not the biggest leader on the team, but I think my effort on the ice and maybe being a little bit more vocal in the locker room, I think my teammates will respect that. That's a role I need to take on."

Payne agrees.

"We know what they're capable of. Now, you've kind of added a little bit of authority to their process," said Payne, who begins his first full NHL season behind the bench this season. "... It's not a burden they're carrying on their own. It's an example. We just want them to keep being the players they are. We want to make sure they understand that they can't look at any certain day with any less importance because guys are following their lead. That's what that group is all about and that's the message that they have to carry forward every day. We trust them. We trust them with our message and that's how this group's gonna move forward."

Johnson, who also represented Team USA along with Backes at the Winter Olympics in February, was not looking for the accolades of being named assistant captain. But since it was bestowed upon him, he has embraced the honor.

"Those things get handed to you based on what other people think about you and after they see what kind of effort you put forth and what kind of person you are," Johnson said. "It's never something that you go and think you deserve or anything like that. ... People see qualities in you that will help this team succeed."

So for players like Johnson, Backes, Oshie, David Perron, Roman Polak, Steen, Jay McClement and so forth, it's their team now. It's up to them how they choose to go forward, because there's no more Keith Tkachuks and Paul Kariyas to guide them.

"All the years Paul and Walt put in, they deserved what they got but ... it's a young team," Johnson said. "We've only got three guys over 30 (Ty Conklin, Andy McDonald and Brewer) so us young guys have to take the bull by the horns and really lead the way and dictate the play and be key pieces off the ice just as much as on the ice. We have a lot of expectations to live up to and a lot of pressure, but it's pressure we invite and pressure we want. I'm really excited about it and everyone's excited about this year and making the playoffs."

A deep run in the playoffs possibly?

"The goal's to play until June," Johnson insists. "We had a long summer to get ready for the season. This is the season for sure we plan on playing until June and going all the way."

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