Veteran Johnson and rookie Byram form close bond on ‘D’ for Avs
There is a 13-year age gap between Colorado Avalanche defensemen Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram. They also play different styles.
But their on-ice chemistry is undeniable and their stories have another connection as well, as both have dealt with the lingering effects of concussions.
Longtime NHL veteran Johnson and rookie Byram make a great combination on the blue line for an Avalanche team heading back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2001. Game 1 against Tampa Bay will take place Wednesday night in Denver.
Go ahead, make all the jokes of the age. They do.
“He’s been playing forever,” said Byram, who turns 21 on Monday.
Johnson’s experience over 14 NHL seasons, however, rubs off on Byram, the speedy defenseman who gets things done and is molded in the same sort of mold as his dynamic teammate Cale Makar. Byram also brings out the best in Johnson, a physical defender who isn’t afraid to step in and help out in the offensive zone.
“He’s got an old-school soul,” Johnson, 34, said of the kid. “He’s so young, but he’s got this throwback style, how he’s off the ice. If he played all year, he would be in contention for Rookie of the Year.”
Earlier this season, Byram dealt with concussion symptoms. He even took a break from the team to fix it. Johnson knows all about it, playing in just four regular season games in 2020-21 and missing a playoff when Colorado was knocked out by Vegas in the second round.
We missed her light presence.
“I’m old on our team, not old in life,” Johnson said earlier this season. “I still act a bit of a goofball. I feel like I’m one of the guys, not an old man. Just try to have fun every day.
He’s also the team’s first player and waived a no-move clause last summer in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. This allowed Colorado to protect players such as Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen. The Kraken took Joonas Donskoi from Colorado, opting to pass on Johnson’s salary and injury history.
“I obviously love Denver and didn’t want to leave, but I rolled the dice and thought they wouldn’t take me,” Johnson explained. “Luckily I’m back here and happy.”
Also thriving in the playoffs alongside Byram, who was limited to 30 games but still tied for third among NHL rookie defensemen in goals with five. Byram was not with the team for personal reasons from mid-January until the end of March. He served a conditioning assignment with the Colorado Eagles in the AHL before joining the team on April 5 in Pittsburgh.
“The organization did a great job of helping me get the help I needed,” Byram said. “So it’s in the rear view mirror. Now I’m just focusing on the playoffs.
Johnson has been a sounding board for Byram, whose skating reminds the veteran of that of Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer.
Simply a high draft pick by helping another — Johnson was ranked No. 1 overall by St. Louis in 2006 and Byram fourth by Colorado in 2019. Byram has become a shrewd student and is soaking up Johnson’s advice. Byram has had seven assists so far in the playoffs, with Johnson registering one goal and four assists.
“He’s only getting better,” said Johnson, who was traded to Colorado in February 2011 and is currently the longest-serving athlete on Denver’s four major sports teams. “If I can speed up this process… happy to do so.”
When the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001, they had a blue line core that included Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. This version is just as deep, with Devon Toews and Makar paired up, as well as Jack Johnson and Josh Manson, 35, and Byram and Johnson. Samuel Girard is out after suffering a broken sternum on a hit in the St. Louis series.
Byram was recently pointed out that he was four days away from birth when the Avalanche won the 2001 title in seven games against the New Jersey Devils.
“I saw a tweet about it the other day, I had a little laugh about it,” Byram said. “It would be nice to win a Cup here.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar had a hunch this duo would work.
“But you never know when you first put guys together what kind of chemistry they’re going to have,” Bednar said. “Erik is quite a vocal guy, not all of our players, but he’s quite vocal and he’s quite tuned in to what’s going on. So it’s important to have a guy there who is quite relaxed and who is able to talk. Erik and Bowen did a good job stepping up. I liked them together.
It’s already a deep connection even with the age difference.
“We like to have fun, joke a little off the ice and give each other a hard time,” Johnson said. “But on the ice, we found good chemistry and we play well together.
“It’s been a good marriage, a good partnership for us. So, yeah, really fun with him. A great boy and the sky’s the limit.”
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