5 things: What’s up with the Erik Johnson contract?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:53 am by Ryan Lambert

Erik Johnson and the Colorado Avalanche agreed on a seven-year contract extension that’ll pay the 27-year-old defencemen $6 million per season. Is he worth this money and term? What are the Avalanche doing here?

1. The new deal

I would, generally, have some nice things to say about Erik Johnson, a guy who probably gets unfairly maligned a lot of the time because he’s never really lived up to that No. 1 overall draft pick status.

Fair enough, though, because the guys picked immediately after him are — in order — Jordan Staal (well-above-average center), Jonathan Toews (top-five center alive/guaranteed Hall of Famer), Nicklas Backstrom (well-above-average center), and Phil Kessel (world-class goalscorer).

And he’s been slowed by injuries. And I think you’d probably have to
say he’s never really been on a good team (in fact, he’s appeared in
just seven playoff games over an eight-year career, and that was with the fluky, rotten 2013-14 Avs). He’s never been particularly dominant, but the season-long performances he often turns in are solid enough that you can’t be unhappy with him as a player if he’s on your team, especially if he’s coming in at the $3.75 million AAV price tag he’s carried over the last three seasons (and this one as well). That at least feels like a solid deal.

So where, even among defensemen in this league, would you put Johnson?

Well with this new contract, which will pay him $6 million against the cap annually until he’s 35, they are valuing him just outside the league’s current top-10 for defensemen. Even if you assume a few current contracts will result in raises for a few guys that move them north of $6 million (Dustin Byfuglien, for example), he’s still easily considered a top-12 or top-15 defenseman if you go by salary.

2. Okay, but why?

One of the things that clearly worked in Johnson’s favor here was that the Avalanche blue line is a disaster. He’s clearly the best player on it — who’s second? 800-year-old Francois Beauchemin? Tyson Barrie? — and was coming up on a UFA status next summer that could have gotten ugly.

That is to say, if he walked as a UFA, Colorado would have been royally screwed at a time when they would, as far as they can reckon, be well-positioned to take a step forward and get back to the postseason. And it’s not as though this is a team that’s going to have a ton of cap constraints — they had just $45.11 million committed to 13 players already for next season before this contract — so while they do still have to re-sign Nathan MacKinnon and Barrie, among other players, next summer, getting everyone under the ceiling isn’t likely to be any sort of a problem even if those guys are given contracts based on “potential” rather than “performance.”

And again, Johnson is a pretty good player. For me, he’s one of those guys that falls into the nebulous area of never really showing how good he actually is in any sort of ultra-demonstrative way, and it’s for players like this that I prefer to use HERO charts.

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That, I think, gives you a pretty good idea of Johnson’s utility. He’s heavily used by Patrick Roy, as well he should be (especially, again, given the state of Colorado’s D corps). He scores a lot of goals and puts up a lot of points by himself, which is always a good thing. And for a possession-poor team like Colorado, with its not-great blue line, the fact that he’s dragging a lot of these guys kicking and screaming to better possession numbers likewise speaks very well for him.

The question is: Does that make him a top-12 defenseman in this league?

3. A closer look

The sad reality for NHL teams about which I will apparently never stop screaming is that the cap’s constraints are only going to get tighter in the years to come as revenues flatten out (and especially without expansion particularly imminent) but contract values continue to rise. That means that teams have to maximize the value of every single dollar they spend, on every contract they hand out. So if the Avs are paying Johnson more than he’s worth, even if it’s just by a little bit, that’s a point of concern.

The thing to keep in mind here is that Johnson’s counting stats aren’t going to stack up particularly well against the field of his peers simply because of all his injury problems. So with this in mind I just went and looked at how many 5-on-5 minutes he played over the past three seasons (more than 2,900) and saw that he placed in the mid-20s in terms of time on ice per game. So within the top 40 in terms of TOI/gm among the 103 guys to play at least 2,900 minutes since 2012, this is how Johnson stacks up:

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Overall this is pretty decent. He’s middle-of-the-pack among high-quality defensemen playing as many minutes as he does. If that lands him in the top-20 or top-30 defensemen in the league, you certainly take that. For my money, this denotes that he is, if nothing else, a clear (if low-end) No. 1 D.

However, they’re paying him more than that, by a decent enough margin to be worrisome. A $6 million cap hit is currently 11th-highest in the league, and next year that number could drop a little bit, but I wouldn’t expect it to decline much lower than, say, 13th (Dustin Byfuglien certainly gets a raise above $6 million, but who else would?). If you drop him into the high teens or low 20s for a cap hit, that puts you around $5.5 million. So on the surface, it’s not that big of an overpayment in and of itself.

However, the fact that it’s any sort of overpayment, due to that thing about maximizing every dollar, ought to be a point of concern. So, too, should the fact that this contract runs until an already-injury-plagued guy will be about 35 years old.

4. The bigger picture

And if this were one bad contract on the Avalanche, you’d maybe say it wasn’t a big deal. This is, however, not one bad contract. It is one of several. For example, Jarome Iginla will still be pulling more than $5.33 million next season (the final year of his deal, and he’ll be 39 for it). Carl Soderberg, whose value isn’t yet fully clear, will be getting $4.75 million. Blake Comeau likewise makes $2.4 million through 2018.

Brad Stuart gets $3.6 million through 2015. Francois Beauchemin gets $4.5 million through the end of 2017-18, when he’ll be 38.

Hell, even Reto Berra gets $1.45 million to be one of the worst backups in the league, and will do so again in 2016-17.

Again, this isn’t a team with any sort of cap trouble on the horizon. They’re overpaying all those players, plus a few more (such as Patrick Bordeleau being on an NHL roster), this year and beyond, but it’s not going to really bother them because you gotta get to the floor somehow and they have almost $9 million in cap space for this season alone.

But it is emblematic of a larger problem: The Avs seemingly cannot properly evaluate their players. And with some decently big-name RFAs coming up in the next two seasons (MacKinnon, Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, etc.) they’re going to have to open the purse again and get these guys locked in. MacKinnon you just pay whatever he wants because he’s Nathan MacKinnon and fair enough, but it’s a problem if they just start overpaying everyone.

And we have no evidence that they won’t or even know how to avoid it.

5. The near future

Look, no one thinks this team is going to be Cup competitive in the next few years at least. Maybe not even really all that playoff-competitive. Their roster not only isn’t very good, but it plays in the toughest division in hockey, and wringing points out of teams like Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, and even Winnipeg isn’t going to be easy.

Johnson might not be a guy they wanted to let walk (well, clearly he isn’t) but how old is he by the time this team is competitive? Like, 30, 31, 32? How many defensemen are among the top-20 or whatever in the league at that age? The odds that he’s worth $6 million at that point can’t be that high. Very few guys would be, and they tend to be guys with a stack of Norris nominations if not trophies. The only award for which Johnson has ever been considered is the Calder, in 2007-08. And he finished 12th in the voting, tied with Nigel Dawes.

So this is a player I think is a bit underrated, but a contract I frankly just don’t get. Colorado wants to build to something and see Johnson as an important piece? Fine. They want to slightly overpay their guy who they quite like (and “only” by like 9 or 10 percent)? Also fine.

But against whom were they bidding with the seven-year deal? And why did they think that was in any way helpful or important to that iffy future toward which they’re apparently building?

The Avalanche misjudging value in today’s, eh? You don’t say.