Saturday, December 11, 2010

Johnson beginning to find offensive stride

Focusing on ice, not away from it,
defenseman has five points in six games

ST. LOUIS -- After a big season offensively last year, Erik Johnson was poised for even greater numbers this season.

Johnson, who finished with a career-high 39 points (10 goals, 29 assists) last season, was poised for bigger and better numbers a No. 1 overall pick is expected to produce.

But after 22 games this season, Johnson carried with him just one goal and four assists into the 23rd game, far lower than what he may have expected. Certainly, it was less than what Blues fans expected.

For the first time since the Blues made him the top overall pick in 2006, some fans were beginning to sour on the Bloomington, Minn. native. Fan forums were beginning to fill up with 'What can we get for Erik Johnson' subject tags, referring to recent talk of the Blues making a trade.

Surely, the Blues wouldn't deal a player they've felt can -- and will -- be one of their cornerstone defensemen now and in the future, would they?

It became evident Johnson, 22, was affected by some of the negativity that was surfacing. But that comes with the territory. Sometimes, one has to take the good with the bad.

However, Johnson has seen plenty of good in his days with the Blues, and what the fans were not seeing was Johnson's complete role on this team. Not only was he poised to produce offensively, but he focused on becoming a more complete two-way player and most importantly, a leader heading into the new season.

He was awarded an 'A' from Blues coach Davis Payne and has relished and handled the role quite well.

But finally, it came to a point where Johnson said enough was enough.

In the last five games, although there have been no goals, but Johnson totaled his season output in the past six games. He has five assists, tallying those points in four of those six games.

"I kind of just said ... for a lack of a better word ... screw it and just went out there and started playing," Johnson said before the Blues faced the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night. "I kind of cut out all outside distractions and just played my game, used my instincts. Coaches can help you so much, but at some point, you've just got to go and say to yourself play your game and that's what I've tried to do."

Johnson tallied two assists in Thursday's 4-1 victory over Columbus and arguably played his best all-around game of the season. One could make the case that it was definitely his most complete offensive game of the season.

"It's nice to get a couple points and get on the scoresheet, but I think the best feeling is just getting a couple wins," Johnson said. "I'm seeing a few more chances, I've simplified my game a little bit more. Things are boiling over to that. I have a little more confidence in my offense right now and hopefully, that can translate the next couple games here and all year."

Johnson leads the Blues in time on ice, averaging 23 minutes, 8 seconds per game, which affects not only his plus-minus but puts a large onus to produce 5-on-5, on the power play and on the penalty kill.

Did Johnson's focus on becoming a more complete defensive player affect his offensive production? Perhaps. But don't tell that to Blues coach Davis Payne.

"I don't believe so because we have a team that has to play all 200 feet of the ice on both sides of the puck," Payne said. "All the playoff teams do. All the teams have to in the playoffs. For us to have to ask ourselves to try and create any more and then give up something to do it, it's a foolish recipe for our hockey club. If that's the case, it's a non-factor for me, because we have to play a certain way. We have to play with a great checking intent first, and we have to understand the opportunities that come from that. ... We've got a job to do and a job to do first, and that's to play a tough, defending game that creates opportunities and creates zone time at the other end."

Johnson's play offensively maybe has coincided with his pairing with former partner and friend Carlo Colaiacovo.

Not that Johnson and Eric Brewer didn't mesh well, but Johnson and Colaiacovo are known more as offensive-minded players. Playing together gives them both the opportunity to accomplish much at both ends of the ice.

"I think he's been putting a lot of pressure on himself," Colaiacovo said of Johnson. "Obviously points haven't been coming as easy, but he's been battling through it, he's been working on other parts of his game. You can see it, it's all slowly starting to come together. I think he's just got to worry about being a go-to guy on our team, being a strong player when he's out there and just working on getting better every game. He's skilled enough and he's big enough where his chances are going to come. It's a real pleasure playing with him. He can't let the things outside the room bother him."

Johnson will be the first to admit the early part of the season was not what he expected.

"I definitely don't think I was up in the play as much as I had been last year and earlier in the season, but I think I've kind of hit that stride a little bit and followed up the play a little bit better," Johnson said. "My offense has kind of followed suit. It's just about moving your feet, making the simple plays and trailing the play and you can get some opportunities."

Johnson, who assisted on the Blues' third goal Thursday, made the play happen after getting a pass from Matt D'Agostini. He got control of it at the left point and without hesitation, fired a puck towards the goal, where Vladimir Sobotka tipped it home.

"I'm getting a lot of shots," Johnson said. "If you're getting a lot of looks and a lot of shots, they're bound to start going in. You can't really force those things. I scored quite a few goals last year and obviously I was hoping to build on that this year. I'm still hoping to do that now.

"Coaches always say waste a couple on their ankles sometimes. Sometimes, you see a guy in the lane, he goes down and try to bust one off his shin or something like that. That's not a bad play either. You can't really force shots. Sometimes you have to just go down the wall, sometimes you have to be a quick wrister. I think myself and the D as a collective group have to do a better job of getting those through because I think if you look at a lot of successful teams, especially on the power play, just simple shots from the point are where a lot of goals come from and are generated."

Prior to Johnson, the last top overall defenseman taken in the draft was Chris Phillips, who went to Ottawa in 1996 when the draft was held here at the former Kiel Center, the last of three straight No. 1 overall defensemen taken (Bryan Berard in 1995 and Ed Jovanovski in 1994).

So the fans' expectations of Johnson is that he would produce into the next Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. That would be difficult considering Johnson is a blue-liner.

The development of a defenseman is much more difficult, but the Blues feel like their top pick is playing well and will get the job done when called upon.

"Getting through the thought process of trying to find the perfect play I think is something he's working himself out of," Payne said. "He puts a lot of expectation on himself and has a lot of ability but sometimes seeing the forest through the trees is the issue here. The play is there, take that play. We don't need him finding extra options, extra opportunities or a perfect play. He can create just in making solid first decisions. That's been the emphasis that we've talked to him about here lately. It's had a pretty good effect the last few games."

"It wasn't coming as easy as maybe he thought it was going to be," Colaiacovo said. "He's still a young player and he's still got a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow. It's like our power play. If we keep hammering at it, eventually, it's going to turn. I think that's what's happening to him. And credit to him, he's stuck with it, he continues to work hard. In the meantime, he's getting better in other areas of his game, which is a benefit for us as well."

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