Erik Johnson: The Invisible No. 1

A year after the deafening hype of the Sidney Crosby draft, 18-year-old defenceman Erik Johnson has quietly become the NHL's top North American prospect.

By Jesse Campigotto

For a six-foot-four, 222-pounder with big-time hockey talent, Erik Johnson is remarkably easy to miss.

Ranked as the top North American skater by the National Hockey League's Central Scouting Bureau, Johnson is projected by many to go first overall in Saturday's entry draft in Vancouver.

Still, most hockey fans wouldn't recognize the 18-year-old defenceman if he skated upand delivered a crushing bodycheck in the style of his blue-line idols Rob Blake and Chris Pronger.

If Johnson is chosen first Saturday (the St. Louis Blues, Pronger's former team, have the top pick), he'll represent quite a contrast from last year's No. 1 selection, Quebec junior sensation Sidney Crosby. That hockey prodigywas drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux years before the Pittsburgh Penguins called his name at the draft.

Obscure pedigree

Johnson's relative anonymity, though, is less a question of his talent (which is pretty much unquestioned) than of his obscure pedigree.

Born in Bloomington, Minn., Johnson starred for two seasons at the Academy of Holy Angels, a Catholic prep school in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, before joining USA Hockey's National Development Team Program in 2004 as a 16-year-old.

Johnson split time in 2004-05 between the U.S. under-17 and under-18 squads, registering 26 points in 57 games, tops among team defencemen. He also helped the United States to a gold medal in the 2005 world under-18 championships in the Czech Republic.

Though anyone who remembers Bobby Orr knows that two-way defencemen are hardly a novel concept in the NHL, many who have watched Johnson feel his skills are tailor-made for a league that is phazing out the lumbering blue-liners of the Dead Puck Era.

"He's kind of a new, hybrid type of player [who fits] the way the NHL is going with their rules," U.S. under-18 coach John Hynes told CBC Sports Online. "I think the thing that makes him pretty special is it's not like he's a defensive or offensive defenceman — he's very good on both sides of the puck."

Hynes also gives Johnson kudos for his precocious personality.

"He's really respectful," says Hynes. "He carries himself well, he can have conversations with adults, and he looks you in the eye and can talk on different subjects. He's humble, polite, has a good sense of humour, but he's pretty low key."

Brawn is not a concern

Johnson has talked of wanting to improve his physical strength, but his brawn shouldn't be a concern, says Don Lucia, head men's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, where Johnson plans to attend this fall.

"When he's done filling out, he's probably going to be 230 or 235 [pounds]," Lucia says. "He's got a tremendous shot from the point, he's a very good skater, he's physical and he's probably going to be one of those cornerstone defencemen for any franchise down the line."

By 2005, Johnson was growing on pro scouts. He racked up team-leading totals of 49 points and 88 penalty minutes in 47 games this past season for the U.S. under-18 team, whose schedule annually includes about 20 games against top American colleges, and won his second-straight world under-18 title.

Johnson also experienced his international coming-out party by helping the U.S. to a fourth-place finish at the world junior championships in British Columbia. Though three of his four points came during an 11-3 blowout of overmatched Norway in the preliminary rounds, observers came away raving about Johnson's tantalizing package of size, agility and well-developed hockey sense.

Hynes, who served as an assistant for the U.S. team in B.C., recalls being amazed by the speed of Johnson's progress.

"He was taken on the team as an under-ager, basically for experience and to play a limited role," Hynes says.

"In our first exhibition game, we played Sweden, up in Victoria, and he almost took control of the game. He went, in the coaching staff's mind, from the seventh or eighth defenceman spot to No. 1 or 2 by two games into the tournament.

"It was really exciting to see it firsthand because he just kept getting better and better each game."

The still-improving Johnson now has a chance to become the first American-born skater selected first overall since the Ottawa Senators chose Bryan Berard of Woonsocket, R.I., with the top pick in the 1995 draft (goaltender Rick DiPietro of Winthrop, Mass., was picked first by the New York Islanders in 2000).

Lawton is a fitting precedent

To find a fitting precedent for the potential first-overall selection of Johnson, though, one must go back even further. Berard and DiPietro, after all, were well-seasoned by playing against the top competition in their age brackets — Berard in the Ontario Hockey League with the Detroit Jr. Red Wings and DiPietro in the U.S. college ranks with traditional powerhouse Boston University.

The last American-born player to go first overall without having played in the Canadian major junior or U.S. college ranks was the immortal Brian Lawton, of New Brunswick, N.J.

Plucked out of high school in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars, who passed over forgettable scrubs Pat Lafontaine and Steve Yzerman, Lawton never surpassed 44 points in an NHL campaign despite playing parts of nine seasons during the league's run-and-gun era.

Hynes believes Johnson is better equipped to make a smooth transition to the pros thanks to his experience with the U.S. development program.

"If you play [at 18 years old] in this program, you've basically played a full season of college hockey," says Hynes. "Plus he's been in the world juniors, so I think his level of play is higher than maybe some other guys that have been drafted that high."

Unlike Lawton, who jumped straight to the North Stars as an 18-year-old fresh from Mount St. Charles High School, Johnson should benefit from some additional seasoning against top-flight college competition at Minnesota, a perennial hockey power of which both his parents are alumni.

"The reality is the NHL is not necessarily for an 18- or 19-year-old," Lucia says. "But if we could have him for a year or two, he'd probably be ready for the NHL."

If Johnson's career continues on the meteoric flight it has taken in recent years, he may find himself amongst hockey's brightest stars sooner than that.