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Expectations rising for Blues' Erik Johnson

After signing a two-year deal, Blues' defenseman Erik Johnson needs to show he was worthy of top-pick status. The 2010-11 season should be a big one for the future of EJ, and the future of the Blues.

Erik Johnson needs to take the next step.

Earlier this week, Erik Johnson signed a two-year deal with the Blues. Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick by the Blues at the 2006 NHL draft, inked a deal that will pay him $5.2 million dollars total to remain with the only franchise he’s known.

The length of the deal for the 22-year-old defender raised some eyebrows. The Blues had two choices when negotiating with EJ — go long or go short. Doug Armstrong and crew went short.

EJ still has yet to show what he really is. Four years since his draft day, the Blues are still unsure of what the have — is Johnson an elite player, or just a very-good player? As of now, the Blues still don't know what they have, which is why he didn't sign a mega-deal to keep him in St. Louis forever.

After a season in college and two in the NHL, Johnson is still best known for being the guy who tore his ACL by playing golf cart polo applying the parking brake of a golf cart. In his two NHL seasons, Johnson has yet to separate himself as most No. 1 overall picks have done in recent years.

Last season was his second in the league and his first after his serious knee injury. In two seasons, here's what Johnson has done.

 Year Team GP G A Pts +/- PIM PPG PPA SHG SHA GW SOG Pct  
 2007-08 STL 69 5 28 33 -9 28 4 14 0 0 3 105 .048  
 2009-10 STL 79 10 29 39 1 79 6 9 0 0 2 186 .054  
 Career Totals 148 15 57 72 -8 107 10 23 0 0 5 291 .052

 

Not bad by any means, but Johnson needs to keep progressing. He hasn't peaked, he's only 22, but these numbers can't be acceptable for the Franchise Player. His +/-, while not the best stat in the world, needs to go on the rise. He needs more power-play goals is he's going to be the point man. He needs more assists — he frankly needs more of everything.

In two years, he hasn't exactly set the NHL on fire. The Blues have made the playoffs just once, but that was when EJ was out with golf-cart knee. Meanwhile, Jonathan Toews has become a star. The player taken immediately after EJ in the '06 draft was a dominant force for Team Canada during the 2010 Olympics and won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff's best player for the Cup-winning 'Hawks. 

Johnson and Toews are two completely different players, but for every accolade tossed Toews' way, the question begins to rise: Did the Blues mess up? Is Johnson over Toews the hockey equivalent of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan or Greg Oden over Kevin Durant or Tim Couch over Donovan McNabb etc.

Johnson also needs to set himself apart from the pack as previous No. 1 picks have done.

Between 2000 and 2008, there were nine No. 1 overall picks. Eight of the nine have carved out an identity for themselves in the league.

In 2000, the Islanders tabbed goalie Rick DiPietro with the first pick. He has since gone on to have an uneven injury-plagued career. After that, No. 1 picks have excelled.

The Thrashers took Ilya Kovalchuk No. 1 in 2001. The next year Rick Nash went to Columbus. Marc-Andre Fleury was taken by Pittsburgh in 2003. Alex Ovechkin was the first pick in 2004 by the Capitals and Sidney Crosby was taken first in 2005 by the Penguins. Johnson was the top pick in 2006. Patrick Kane took top billing in 2007 and 2008 belong to Steven Stamkos.

Every single one of those players, besides Johnson, has become a star. Fluery has his detractors, but he helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2008-09; calling him a star may be a stretch, but he has his name on the Cup and is a solid bona fide No. 1 goalie.

Johnson's defenders are quick to point out that he's a defenseman and d-men take longer to develop. Duncan Keith, the Blackhwaks' stand-out defender, won his first Norris Trophy just this summer after being drafted in 2002 (To be fair, Keith has been good for a few years, but NHL writers just kept writing Niklas Lidstrom in out of habit long after his prime had passed.)

It's true: Johnson is a defenseman and it's foolish to expect him to pot 50 goals in his second season like Stamkos did. No one expects Johnson to put up Ovechkin numbers. What is expected is Johnson becomes a top NHL defender. As of now, he's not there.

EJ has shown flashes of talent. He was stellar for Team USA during the Olympics. He scored a brilliant end-to-end OT goal to beat Phoenix last season. He has the tools, he has the talent, but he needs to put them together. The two years have been fine, but 2010-11 needs to be better. EJ has to play like an All-Star. He has to play like a No. 1 pick.

Blues fans are used to seeing good defensman. St. Louis has had in the last 20 years, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger wear the Blues. Erik Johnson, being the No. 1 overall pick, should be next on this list.

With his new two-year deal, the Blues are basically saying he's not there yet. If EJ were one of the elites, the Blues would have locked up for a long time.

Now, the pressure is on EJ to take the next step. He has to if the Blues are going to move beyond just fighting for a playoff spot.