2006 prospects: Erik Johnson

By Matt MacInnis

Defenseman Erik Johnson is one of four undrafted players who will represent the United States in the 2006 World Junior Championships in Vancouver, BC. The massive, 6’4, 225 lbs 17-year-old is considered to be a first-round lock and most likely will find himself being drafted in the top ten at the NHL Draft in June, which will also be held in Vancouver.

Johnson is a big-body presence on the ice that is very aggressive and dishes out huge hits, both along the boards and in the open ice. His defensive sense is very good for a 17-year-old as he is rarely caught out of place in his own zone, and he makes good decisions when he sees the opportunity to step up in the neutral zone to pick off a pass. But Johnson is not just a defensive player.

“I’d say I’m a two-way defenseman who can move the puck and play defense. And create offensive rushes.”

Johnson is an above-average stick-handler for his age and appears comfortable carrying the puck. He makes hard and accurate passes coming out of the defensive zone. Something that he needs to improve is his shooting ability. His slap shot is not as heavy as one would like from a big defensemen and he has some difficulties putting the puck on net. However, these are skills that can be developed with hard work over time. His skating, which is almost always a concern with big draft-age defensemen, is not bad, but of course could use some improvement. Johnson says he is currently focusing on his skating and improving his physical play.

“Definitely my physical play and my foot speed, just trying to get quicker so I can take quick steps forward and so I can be stronger along the boards.”

The World Juniors is the single biggest stage for hockey prospects and is widely regarded as the event that can have the biggest impact on a player’s draft position. Despite this, Johnson is treating the event just like any other tournament.

“Well, you know, it’s just another tournament and I want to play my game. I’m not really thinking about the draft right now, just want to get out there and hope we win a gold medal.”

He does, however, admit that he feels a little bit of added pressure knowing that his performance in this event could make draft day a very good day or a very long day.

“Maybe a little bit, it’s a big tournament and there are a lot of scouts out there. But it’s not really a huge thing in my mind. It’s definitely out there.”

Johnson will be paired with the top defenseman in the 2005 NHL Draft, Jack Johnson (CAR, no relation) for the World Juniors in what will likely be the team’s top defensive unit. The duo looked very strong in practice and an exhibition game against Sweden in Victoria, BC. While Erik Johnson was being interviewed by Hockey’s Future, Edmonton Oilers prospect Rob Schremp stopped by just long enough to predict that he would be the best defenseman in the tournament, a glowing compliment from a player that many expect will be among the leader scorers in the tournament. It has been a promising start to the World Junior tournament, where the American team are being labelled as the heavy favorites, but Johnson notes the home team has advantages.

“We’re in Canada and they are the defending gold medalists. So, it’s their barn, their fans and they’re a great team. It’s going to be tough to take it away from them.”

Johnson is joined on the team by childhood friend, and fellow 2006-eligible top prospect Peter Mueller. The two grew up together in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Johnson says they have been close friends since they were ten years old.

Johnson also acknowledged that he has started to hear from coaches and others where he will most likely hear his name being called on June 24, 2006.

“Well, just from what I’ve been told, top ten, anywhere in there. I’m not really sure, we’ll see over the next couple of months,” Johnson said.

Over the past few years we have seen NHL teams seemingly reaching to select monstrous sized defensemen. In 2004, the Atlanta Thrashers used the tenth overall pick to take Slovakian giant Boris Valabik (ATL), a decision certainly made with visions of Zdeno Chara dancing in their heads. Last year we saw the Tampa Bay Lightning take another 6’7 Slovakian when they chose Vladimir Mihalik (TB) 30th overall. Johnson may not have their height, but he does possess an impressive physique, which he thinks may draw more interest to him.

“Probably, I’ve heard that some pro teams like bigger guys.”

Johnson is currently playing for the US Developmental program, electing to take that route over the CHL or other American developmental leagues such as the USHL. He explained what the differences were between the program and the USHL.

“Well, we basically play a Division I schedule there and you just get used to the college schedule a year ahead so you’re almost like a freshman in your last year of high school so it definitely prepares you a year earlier.”

Next season, Johnson will join the University of Minnesota. He explained why he decided to commit to Minnesota instead of one of the other powerhouse NCAA programs.

“I’ve wanted to go there my whole life and I’ve always wanted to be a Gopher. Growing up watching like [Jordan] Leopold and all those guys it’s just been my dream to play for them.”

Look for Johnson to be a top ten pick in the 2006 Draft, as it will be difficult for teams to pass over a prospect with such great size and hockey sense.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.