Oct. 6, 2006
By Elliot Olshansky
It should hardly come as surprise that Erik Johnson has his eye on St. Louis. After all, the rugged defenseman was selected by the St. Louis Blues with the top overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft this past June, and is expected to give the Blues a blueline presence that they haven't had since the departure of Chris Pronger.
But all of that will have to wait, because the reason Johnson's gaze drifts to the south is the 2007 Frozen Four, which will be held at the ScottTrade Center this April. As Johnson begins his freshman year at the University of Minnesota - which will see him become the first player ever to play college hockey after being drafted No. 1 overall - he has every intention of ending the year in the shadow of the Gateway Arch...even if he didn't quite realize it at first.
"I just figured that out when I went out there," Johnson said of his trip to St. Louis for the Blues' prospect camp. "I didn't know about it until then. I'd like to give the fans out there a taste of me. That's my goal for this season: to get to St. Louis."
It'd make for an ideal freshman year for Johnson, who, like most young hockey players in Minnesota, dreamed of one day donning the maroon and gold jerseys of the Gophers and skating at Mariucci Arena.
"Ever since I was younger, I've always wanted to play for the Gophers," Johnson said. "I'm excited. Growing up, I watched Jordan Leopold, Mike Crowley, Keith Ballard and all of those guys. I kind of want to build off the things they did, and have a solid first season."
Of course, knowing that he could have been pursuing a "solid first season" in the NHL was an intriguing thought, and one that Johnson did mull over, before ultimately deciding to follow through on his original plan.
"You always have to investigate your options," Johnson said, "and think of what's best for you, and I really wasn't sure what I was going to do. I thought about it, and decided that coming here to Minnesota would be in my best interest."
It's certainly in the best interests of the Gophers.
"I think this year's pretty big for us," Johnson said. "Most people don't realize that Holy Cross is a pretty good hockey team, and they don't get enough credit for what they did last year, but it's going to be a big year for us to prove that last year was a fluke, and this year, we're going to be good."
There are obstacles and roadblocks on the way to a successful 2006-07 season for the Gophers, most notably the string of off-season departures. Since Minnesota's unceremonious end to 2005-06, four top forwards for the Gophers - Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen, Kris Chucko and Phil Kessel - have signed NHL contracts, forgoing their remaining years of NCAA eligibility.
However, the departure that most impacts Johnson - as well as fellow freshman blueliners David Fischer (a first-round draft pick in his own right) and Brian Schack - is the retirement of defenseman Nate Hagemo, who made the tough decision to hang up the skates earlier this week after attempts to rehabilitate an injured shoulder were unsuccessful. With the Gophers down to seven defensemen, Johnson and the rest of the blueline corps will have their backs against the wall, but Johnson is confident that he and his mates are up to the task.
"It's a shame to lose him at the beginning of the year," Johnson said, "when we thought he was going to be back. I don't see it as any added pressure, except we have one less guy. We're going to be expected to carry a pretty heavy load back on the blueline. I think all of the guys are up to the challenge. It's sad to see Nate hang `em up, but he's got to do what's best for him."
The question remains: what, in the long run, will be best for Erik Johnson? His freshman year is unprecedented on its own, given his draft status. Could fulfilling his lifelong desire to wear the Gopher `M' keep him at Mariucci Arena for a second season or longer?
The answer to that question will be a while in coming.
"Coming into this year, I'm really trying not to think about what's going to happen next year," Johnson said. "I'm just going to try to be in the present, and do all I can to have a good year and help the team have a good year."
All Johnson can do is quite a lot, as he's already showing his Gopher teammates.
"He's a phenomenal player," said fellow freshman Tony Lucia, son of Gophers coach Don Lucia. "You watch him with the puck, and he's so poised. You question some of the moves he makes, but he always has the puck on his stick after he's done with them. It always works out. It's one of those things where you're so good that you can get away with a lot of things. It's amazing to be in the presence of players like him, because they only make you better, because they make you work harder."
Johnson is well prepared to work hard for the Gophers this season. He's been preparing for it for as long as he can remember. And after he finishes working hard in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he's planning on coming down to St. Louis. But hang onto the jersey with the Blue Note for a while. Johnson's looking to come down in maroon and gold.