Erik Johnson signs 7-year deal with Avalanche; has he earned it?

Greg Wyshynski
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson dives for the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period of an HNL hockey game Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Erik Johnson signed a seven-year contract extension with the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, worth $6 million against the salary cap annually. 

The biggest upshot here, of course, is that the defenseman won’t get anywhere near unrestricted free agency next summer. No lingering contract drama during the season. No one else dangling some crazy-pants offer in front of Johnson, as 27-year-old blueliners of his ilk just don’t hit the open market.

[Yahoo Sports Fantasy Hockey: Sign up and join a league today!]

But the deal also offers some validation to the Avalanche and to Johnson that the former first overall pick has gotten his game to the point where a seven-year deal isn’t going to be seen as a shoddy investment.

He’s entering his prime, and playing like it.

From the Avs:

Johnson, 27, finished tied for first among Avalanche defensemen with a career-high 12 goals last season despite missing the final 34 games of the year due to injury. He ranked second among Colorado defensemen with 23 points (12g/11a) while averaging a team-high 24:25 of ice time per game. Johnson was selected to his first NHL All-Star Game, the first Avalanche defenseman to be picked since Rob Blake in 2003-04.

“Erik is a big part of the core of this team,” said Avalanche Executive Vice President/General Manager Joe Sakic. “We felt it was important for our franchise to secure his rights for the long term as he enters the prime years of his career.”

The first-overall pick by St. Louis in the 2006 Entry Draft, Johnson was acquired by Colorado via trade on Feb. 18, 2011. He has recorded 193 points (48g/145a) in 456 career NHL games. During the 2013-14 season, Johnson set a career high with 30 assists and tied his personal best with 39 points in 80 games for the Avalanche.

In you look inside the numbers, Johnson was quite brilliant before his injury, within the context of the style Patrick Roy has this team playing. As Mile High Hockey notes, despite having the lowest relative offensive zone starts for Avs defensemen, meaning he was putting up numbers while being at a competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, from MHH’s Steve House:

EJ generated more shots (dCF Impact = 45.8) and suppressed more shots (dCA Impact = -28.06, negative is good) than his role indicated, and had he continued the whole year that way, he would have finished at the top of the team in this measure alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Not bad.

Johnson’s improvement began in 2013-14, when the Denver Post gave him a B-plus grade for the season, noting that “he has a lot of his old confidence back.”

Last season, Johnson slimmed down after a change in his offseason training and had analysts like Ray Ferraro praising the improvements he made in his offensive game. “Aggressive without being careless.”

This season, he likely gets Francois Beauchemin as his partner, so he can even take a few more chances.

Who knows what this deal looks like by 2023, when it expires? Who knows what Johnson looks like by then? But for now, the Avalanche had a defenseman who’s finally putting it all together, in his prime, for $250,000 more annually than Matt Niskanen got from the Capitals as a free agent.

Nice work out of Sakic; now it’s on EJ to make this deal look as good as it does on paper.