Flyers veteran defenseman Johnson embraces mentor role

Erik Johnson

When it comes to a young, promising NHL team on the rise, it never hurts to have at least one wise “old” veteran in the locker room.

With the Flyers last season, fans saw it with venerable defenseman Marc Staal at the outset. His role on the team was as important off the ice as it was on it.

At the trading deadline, the Flyers called Buffalo and acquired Erik Johnson, another experienced backliner with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and 17 years of NHL knowledge under his helmet.

So it came as no surprise when general manager Daniel Briere approached the 36-year-old Johnson about coming back for one more year at the comfortable price of one million bucks.

Given Johnson’s track record, which includes the aforementioned ring with Colorado in 2021-22, the decision for Briere was almost a no-brainer.

Johnson thinks and speaks the game like few can. He articulates hockey so well, it kept him on Thursday’s media conference call for more than 15 minutes.

Embracing that leadership role in the locker room played a big part in the Minnesota native’s decision to play at least one more year. And being pegged as a seventh defenseman didn’t bother him either.

Plus he needs only 13 more games in the NHL to reach the coveted 1,000 mark.

“That (mentor’s role) kind of comes with being in the league a long time,” Johnson said via a media Zoom call from the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees, N.J. “Going into my 18th year, believe it or not.

“I think you have to adapt in this league. I’ve kind of turned into a defensive, penalty-kill guy. I’m open to any role, I’m here to help these guys, on and off the ice, whether it’s 20, 30, 40, 50 games.”

In a way it’s a form of payback to the game. As a young player, Johnson learned a lot from veterans such as Doug Weight and Paul Kariya in St. Louis and Adam Foote and Milan Hejduk in Colorado.

“They really offered a lot of things off the ice,” the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Johnson said. “I still carry them with me today. While not in the prime of my career now, I still feel like I can offer a lot of things.”

While he’s only been here a few months, Johnson feels like he’s found a home with the Flyers.

“Right when I got to Philly I loved the guys, felt super welcome,” Johnson said. “I know a lot’s been talked about the locker room and what a great group it is. But to speak from experience as an older veteran player, it was truly awesome just to be with those guys. A great mix of older guys and youth.

“The organization from top to bottom really impressed me. Not only the people but the facilities, the city of Philly, the practice facility – they’re all top-notch. It’s a first-class organization. It was really someplace I wanted to be. Being with the guys, I felt I had a connection with them. I think that’s a testament to the culture in the locker room that’s been created there.”

The wisdom Johnson can impart won’t necessarily show up in a scoring summary or league statistics.

“There’s so much that goes into being a pro, not only on the ice but off the ice,” Johnson said. “I’m here to show these guys in any way I can what it takes. Anything I can add, I’m here to do it.”

In a way, Johnson can serve as a liaison between the players and a somewhat demanding coach in John Tortorella.

“As a young player, I can remember being pretty intimidated by the coach,” Johnson said. “It’s changed a bit now with the league being a little more player-friendly.

“Obviously, ‘Torts’ is known as a super demanding coach. Since I’m a veteran guy, I can kind of see which way the wind is blowing and relay that to the coaches if need be. I’m comfortable with that.”

As for thoughts on his post-career someday, Johnson said the idea hasn’t really come up yet. Sounds like he wants to keep playing awhile.

“I never considered it because I love the game,” said Johnson. “I love being around the rink. I’m going to try and play as long as I can.

“Being that seventh ‘D’ I’m totally comfortable with. I’m here to support Cam York, Jamie Drysdale, (Travis) Sanheim, ‘Risto’ (Rasmus Ristolainen), ‘Seels’ (Nick Seeler), (Egor) Zamula. . .I’m here for them no matter what they need.”

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About Wayne Fish 2473 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.