I’m going to cut to the chase here – Erik Johnson has been one of the best defensemen in the NHL this year and it is unfathomable to me that he missed the cut for Team USA. Snubs for other players have been discussed at length, but outside of Avalanche Nation, very few people are talking about Johnson’s candidacy – which is an absolute shame, because his game has reached some incredible heights over the past 12 months.
Burnside: “Erik Johnson continues to play well in Denver and plays on the right side, but he doesn’t kill penalties and would only occupy time on a second power-play unit and there remains concern about his foot speed on the big ice in Sochi.”
This is the only mention of a knock against Johnson on Scott Burnside’s excellent article about the selection process. To me, this is nitpicking – while Johnson hasn’t seen much PK time this year, he has been a regular on PK units in years past and is hardly incapable of doing so. He has also performed exceptionally in a defensive role this season, and has been closer to the archetypal shutdown defenseman than any one of his compatriots. Patrick Roy’s reluctance to give him shorthanded minutes most likely stems from not wanting to burn out his best defender when there are perfectly capable substitutes who can play the role.
And while Team USA brass is correct that he’s no power play specialist, the criticisms of his foot speed are patently inaccurate. Johnson’s smooth stride is one of his greatest assets – I’ve said for a while now that his combination of size, strength and mobility puts him in the Jay Bouwmeester mold, and he’s been similarly underappreciated as well. It’s ironic that Brian Burke likens coaches’ impressions to viewing snapshots while GMs see the entire picture; if Johnson’s foot speed is a concern, then it’s doubtful that they even reviewed video of him. (Though to Burke’s credit, he is the staunchest advocate of adding Johnson throughout the process.)
Unfortunately for Johnson, it appears that he was always on the outside looking in, and failed to garner enough of the panel’s interest to merit inclusion. A lot of their analysis appears to be based on reputation calls (Jack Johnson and Dustin Byfuglien in particular come to mind), and Johnson certainly has some stigma surrounding him – the mislabel of first-overall bust and being snakebitten for the entire 2013 season – that may have kept him from being a big-name candidate. I’m anticipating that he simply wasn’t looked at with the scrutiny of other defensemen, and I’m now going to demonstrate why it was absolutely a terrible idea.
A quick recap of the statistics I’m using: CF% is the ratio of total shot attempts taken by a team when the player is on the ice. Corsi Rel is the shot attempt differential between when the player is skating or on the bench. O/D% indicates a how often player is deployed in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone. Corsi Rel QualComp is the quality of competition that a player faces, as measured by their Corsi Rel statistic (players with a high Corsi Rel tend to be the best drivers of possession on their team). Time on ice, as well as that on the man advantage and shorthanded are measured as percentages of the total time spent by the player’s team in those situations. And rather than shots on goal, I’ve taken all attempts (abbreviated CF as Corsi For) directed at the net by each player.
What jumps out immediately is the Johnson is facing both easily the harshest competition (1.954 Corsi Rel) and very nearly the most defensive zonestarts (56.4%) among his peers. Roy is trusting him to shut down the best opposing players while they begin in a position to score. Regardless of the knock that he doesn’t kill penalties, he is handling tougher assignments than any other leading candidate for Team USA. In comparison, Kevin Shattenkirk receives far more favourable offensive starts and tends to play against minnows, thanks to the first pairing of Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo eating up the Blues’ toughest minutes.
Shattenkirk, of course, is still an excellent defenseman and it shows in his Corsi Rel of +10.9, which is to say that over 60 minutes his team takes a whopping 10.9 more shot attempts when he’s on the ice than when he isn’t. But this can partly be attributed to the fact that his shifts tend to begin in the offensive zone and he’s directing all these shot attempts against weaker possession players.
(Interestingly, Dustin Byfuglien here shows that he could’ve been chosen as a power play specialist over both Shattenkirk and Keith Yandle. He plays in much tougher situations and kills penalties while they don’t, but still generates about as much offense and drives possession to an absurd degree. He’s another player who deserves to have this article written about him.)
There are no such qualifiers for Johnson, who manages to drive possession positively when he is on the ice despite essentially playing on Hard Mode. He also contributes well on offense, and would seem to block enough shots to qualify for whatever Grit Factor the old-school types are looking for. His raw Corsi% isn’t so impressive, but it doesn’t trail the likes of John Carlson or Brooks Orpik by much, and they lack the degree of difficulty Johnson faces – particularly Orpik, who is the player I would push for Johnson to replace.
If you need a defensive stopper, Orpik isn’t particularly impressive – he sees moderately difficult deployment, but compared to the Team USA elite, it’s middling at best. He also gets crushed in Corsi Rel, bleeding shots attempts against to a tune of -7.1 per 60 minutes when he takes the ice. Orpik has never been effective at driving possession, and is more of a penalty killing specialist with a reputation for zone defense (eg: shot blocking). But a great deal of the game is played on even strength, and Shattenkirk notwithstanding, the entire defensive corps of Team USA can kill penalties. Orpik is at best redundant and at worst an even-strength liability.
Just to be thorough, I also compiled the data for the 2012-13 season. Here Johnson was definitely a few rungs down the development ladder, but still produced defensive stops against more middling competition. Cam Fowler was the poorer player last year and his improvements have raised him to the Olympic team, so it’s hard to argue that a weaker preceding season should be a black mark for Johnson. It should also be noted that Orpik completely folded against tough competition and zonestarts, surrendering an appalling -18.1 Corsi Rel – and he still wasn’t in as tough a spot as Johnson is this year.
Johnson is clearly superior in a defensive role, and brings scoring to the table to boot. Glossing over him is a glaring mistake by the American brass, and while the choice of 8th defenseman is hardly going to cause the team’s implosion (as much of the Avalanche fandom is convinced it will), it’s certainly a notable downgrade in player quality. Unfortunately for Johnson, this is likely a simple case of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma selecting their own players in Orpik and Paul Martin. We’ll find out soon enough how unfortunate it bodes for Team USA’s medal hopes.