Johnson commits to Gophers for ’06-’07

Johnson’s decision means Phil Kessel’s future is the only uncertain one.

by Chris Lempesis

After some thought and discussion, Erik Johnson decided he’s going to follow – at least for a little while – the path many 18-year-olds take.

He’s going to college.

Johnson, the incoming freshman defenseman who was selected by the St. Louis Blues as the No. 1 overall selection of last month’s NHL Entry Draft, said he will honor his commitment and play for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team next season.

“I just decided that going to Minnesota this year was going to be best for my development and help me out in the long term,” Johnson said in between freshmen orientation sessions at the University.

Johnson said the decision was made during a recent conference call between his family and Blues president John Davidson and general manager Larry Pleau.

He also said the Blues were in favor of whatever he wanted to do and turning down the money that would have been there was not tough for him.

“If I wait one more year, that’s just one more year I’m going to get better,” Johnson said. “So that’s just a little easier for me to maybe reach a bonus with St. Louis if I’m going to be that much better.”

Johnson said it was also not really difficult to put the dream of playing in the NHL on hold for another year, noting that while he was growing up in Bloomington there was no local professional team around for the most part, so the Gophers were the team to follow.

The man that now coaches the team Johnson followed in his youth, Don Lucia, said he was excited, although not entirely surprised by Johnson’s decision.

“Based on the conversations that I’ve had with the family all spring and Erik Ö their intention was to be here this fall,” Lucia said. “I think the only way that would have changed was (if) St. Louis would’ve been adamant that he sign and bring him in.

“But I think they were comfortable that for his development, he’s better off playing major minutes for us than minimal minutes for St. Louis.”

Lucia also said Johnson will make a “huge difference” in terms of the Gophers’ overall defensive core because of his size (6 feet, 4 inches, 220 pounds) and his ability to perform at both ends of the ice.

Johnson recorded 16 goals and 33 assists (49 points) in 47 games with the U.S. National Under-18 team in Ann Arbor, Mich., last season.

Junior defenseman Derek Peltier said the addition of Johnson, along with five returning blueliners and all three goalies, could make the defense the strength of the team, especially early on.

That assessment seems fair considering Minnesota will be young at the forward position this year.

As of now, five of Minnesota’s 14 forwards will be freshmen, and that number will increase if sophomore forward Phil Kessel signs with the Boston Bruins.

But, as much as Johnson’s decision could help the team, Lucia and Peltier said it will be beneficial to Johnson as a person as well.

“I definitely don’t think he would have made a wrong decision by coming here,” Peltier said. “I think it will help him grow for a year, and he’ll definitely mature in the year that he’s here.”

Kessel update
It was just a couple of weeks ago that Lucia said Johnson and Kessel were the only two members of the 2006-2007 roster that were in question of leaving early.

Now that Johnson has decided to play for the Gophers, the talk shifts to Kessel.

Johnson said he spoke to Kessel in early June and said Kessel told him he believes he’s staying at Minnesota.

“I think things are up in the air with him and it wouldn’t be a shock to me if he signed (with Boston),” Johnson added. “But you never know.”

Lucia, noting that the Bruins just hired new general manager Peter Chiarelli on Monday, said he thinks the team will know a lot more within the next couple of weeks.

He also said the team is in pretty good contact with Kessel.

“I know (assistant coach) Mike (Guentzel) just talked to him (Monday) night,” Lucia said. “I talked to him and right now his intention is to play for the Gophers next year. But, again, we’ll have to wait and see if Boston tries to pull him out.”