There’s been a fair bit of talk about last night’s trade between the Avs and Blues, and the consensus is that however things shake out, the Avs acquired a future first pairing defender, the type of player that’s generally hard to find unless you draft them yourself.
That type of consensus is, of course, often arrived at by conventional wisdom/groupthink and superficial analysis. Erik Johnson was a first overall pick and 2010 Olympian for the silver medalists, so the normal line of thought would lead one to presume that Johnson was already an elite player at the age of 22.
Simply accepting that sort of shallow overview, however, should never be good enough, since we’ve seen plenty of evidence in recent years that the conventional wisdom can be pretty damned flawed. For an excellent analysis of Johnson vs. Shattenkirk, mindmasher at Hockeyzen has it covered and then some, but I also wanted to have a brief look at how EJ compared to a high-end defender we’re pretty familiar with in these parts.
Like Johnson, there was every expectation that Dion Phaneuf was a slam-dunk top pairing defenceman. That hasn’t quite worked out as planned, which got me wondering how the newest member of the Avalanche compared to Phaneuf at a similar age.
First though, let’s look at a few of Erik Johnson’s underlying numbers at EV. As per usual, numbers are from BTN. All Qcomp/Qteam numbers are the Corsi ones. The team rankings are for defencemen on the Blues that have played at least 10 minutes a night for at least 30 games this year:
|5th of 6||1st of 6||-3.8||4th of 6||2.73||55.8||3rd easiest|
Johnson has spent the season scuffling against third pairing competition, as his RelCorsi shows, and he wasn’t exactly getting the Bogosian treatment in terms of Zone Starts. He’s had good teammates as well. Davis Payne was doing what many coaches do with young defenders in terms of making Johnson’s life easier, but to be honest I would have expected a player as touted as Johnson to be showing more, even accepting that he’s a few weeks away from his 23rd birthday.
Still, his numbers, as mindmasher showed, look about like Shattenkirk’s at EV, and the Boston University product is a year younger. That’s not exactly an endorsement for Johnson being much more advanced. Also, Johnson may have spent more time on the PK this year, but during his 22 year old season in 09/10, he averaged 47 seconds of PK time a night, so his perceived advantage in that area might be partially due to an edge in age and NHL experience. We’ll have to see how Shattenkirk is deployed next year before the comparison can be fully made regarding utilization when his team is down a man. I supect Johnson will be more of an all-around workhorse, but that fact still needs time to be established.
I mentioned our old pal Dion earlier in the piece, and for good reason. He was basically the same age as Johnson in 07/08, a year where Phaneuf was nominated for the Norris Trophy. That nomination was a bit off, given that he didn’t play top competition, but his numbers weren’t applesauce, either. Note that team rankings in this case are for Flames’ defencemen that played 10 minutes a night for at least 40 games in 07/08:
|3rd of 7||2nd of 7||8.0||1st of 6||9.25||56.8||3rd easiest|
Dion’s EV possession numbers were better than Johnson’s, and he managed them against second liners, which is a step ahead of either Johnson or Shattenkirk. He also compiled those numbers carrying Anders Eriksson around for most of the season, which is a point in his favour as well, because that guy couldn’t play a lick. Unlike Shattenkirk, Phaneuf put in his time on the PK, averaging 2:48 a night, but the 07/08 season was his third full year in the pros, so you’d expect more from that sort of player.
Worth mentioning as well is the relative team strength. Calgary wasn’t any sort of EV powerhouse, as they were slightly outshot at 5v5 (27.5/60 SF to 27.8/60 SA) in 07/08, while this year’s Blues club is 29.2/60 to 27.9/60 on the good side. For purposes of comparison, Colorado is currently 29.9/60 SF, 30/.0/60 SA 5v5.
I have no problem preaching patience when it comes to young defencemen. Not every guy is Drew Doughty, and there’s certainly a decent chance that Erik Johnson becomes the all-around player he was projected to be in 2006. Phaneuf’s mild retrogression since his 23 year old season should serve as a cautionary tale, though. Johnson may well turn out to better than either of Shattenkirk or Phaneuf, but anyone that’s suggesting it’s a certainty is doing it solely based on draft pedigree and best guesses, because there’s no concrete evidence to this point that would confirm that belief.