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Erik Johnson Reaches Turning Point Of Short Career

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The Blues cannot afford - financially or in the currency of fan support - to miss the playoffs this year. We know it, the front office probably thinks about it every day and the players have to be aware of that pressure.

Earlier this summer, Gallagher wrote about several players that management expects to see improve this season. Then he singled out T.J. Oshie. And why wouldn't you? He's so damn dreamy. But in my estimation, the player with the most pressure on his shoulders to improve this season is Erik Johnson.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, Johnson has played in 148 NHL games despite missing his entire second season because of some bizarre golfing accident that we never really believed. Last year he scored 10 goals (six on the power play) and totaled 29 assists. I think you can call that a good season and he's possibly a star in the making, especially after winning a silver medal at the Olympics for the U.S. team. But he definitely has some work to do. And there is more expected from a top pick like that. Drew Doughty in LA has hockey folks drooling from the corners of their mouth when they watch him play. The praise is effusive. Johnson doesn't have nearly the buzz or cachet across the league. Is it because of the lost season and now flying under the radar four drafts after his? Or is it reduced expectations and a perceived lower career ceiling, mostly due to the injury?

The optimist in me says Johnson is ready to bust out and show why he was the No. 1 pick overall. After major knee reconstruction, it took awhile to get adjusted to the speed of the NHL. He played in 79 games and really showed some flashes of his potential. He will be one of the best players on this team this season.

The pessimist in me says he should be a better player right now because we've seen him so long (lost season or not). Maybe the pessimist in me is being a dick (Eric Brewer nods head) because if you compare Johnson to his fellow defensemen from his draft...well it's no comparison.

Of the other defensemen drafted in all of the 2006 NHL draft (which must have been light on defensive depth considering the second defenseman wasn't picked until No. 16 overall), the leader in NHL games played is Andrew MacDonald with the Islanders with 49. But it's worth noting that MacDonald was born in 1986 and was drafted the same year as Johnson who was born in 1988. Of all the defensemen taken in 2006, only two others have even notched an NHL goal: MacDonald with one goal and Jamie McBain who has three goals in 14 NHL games. That's it.

In other words, compared to his contemporaries on the blue line in the 2006 NHL Draft, Johnson is far and away the best defenseman of the bunch. But here's where the pressure part kicks in.

Everybody knows Johnson was the No.1 overall pick. Eric Brewer will be a free agent after this season, Barret Jackman in two seasons. Leadership with the defensive corps will fall squarely on Johnson. His growth on the power play is a huge factor for this team to improve. He has the size and speed to be a dominant player. Is this the year he takes the next step? Is this the year he realizes his potential considering he was drafted ahead of Jordan Staal and  Jonathan Toews, two Stanley Cup winners? Or is this the year he begins to cement a reputation as a good but not great NHL player?

This summer Johnson became a restricted free agent. Because he only had two years of NHL experience, he was not even allowed to negotiate with other NHL teams. In other words he had no bargaining power in contract talks. Still, they lagged on into the beginning of August before he signed just a two-year deal for $5.2 million total. Listen to Johnson's agent, Pat Brisson, when he told Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch about the negotiations before reaching an agreement with the Blues.

"Normally after two years, whether he has offer-sheet rights or not, the trend is to explore a longer-term deal and lock up your core players. That doesn't seem to be the case with the Blues.

"So the course of the conversation has changed a bit. This is perhaps a direction we weren't intending to go down, but the Blues are looking for a shorter-term (extension)."

That screams to me an acknowledgment from the Blues that they see this year and probably the next as a fork in the road for Johnson at the veteran age of 22 (of course the Blues might have made that shorter deal because of cash issues, but that's a discussion for another time). What he does between now and the end of the 2011-12 season will determine his long term future with this organization. Now that's what I call pressure.

Disagree? Persuade me in the comments.