Veteran Johnson, rookie Byram form tight bond on defense for Avalanche

DENVER — There is a 13-year age difference in the pairing of Colorado Avalanche defensemen Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram. They also play different styles.

But their chemistry on the ice is undeniable and their stories have another connection as both have dealt with the lingering effects of concussions.

Longtime NHL veteran Johnson and rookie Byram were quite a combination on the blue line for an Avalanche team returning to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2001. Game 1 vs. Tampa Bay takes place in Denver on Wednesday night.

Go ahead, do all the age jokes. do they.

“He’s been playing forever,” joked Byram, who turns 21 on Monday.

Nearly.

Johnson’s 14 NHL seasons, however, rubs off on Byram, the responsive, do-anything defenseman who comes from the same 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 kind of got an old-school soul,” Johnson, 34, said of the boy. “He’s so young but has this throwback style to how he’s off the ice. If he played all year, he would be in the running for rookie of the year.”

Earlier this season, Byram was dealing with concussion symptoms. He even took a break from the team to recover. Johnson knows all about the subject, playing in just four regular-season games in 2020-21 and missing one postseason when Colorado was eliminated by Vegas in the second round.

His carefree presence was missed.

“I’m old on our team, not old in life,” Johnson said earlier this season. “I’m still acting a bit like a jerk. I feel like one of the boys, not like an old guy. Just try to have fun every day.”

He’s also a team-first player and waived a no-movement stipulation during the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft last summer. It allowed Colorado to protect players like Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen. The Kraken took on Colorado’s Joonas Donskoi, opting to pass on Johnson’s salary and injury history.

“I obviously love Denver and didn’t want to go, but I rolled the dice and thought they wouldn’t take me,” Johnson explained. “Luckily I’m back here and happy.”

He also thrived in the postseason alongside Byram, who was held for 30 games but still ranked third among NHL rookie defensemen with five goals. Byram was not in the team from mid-January to the end of March for personal reasons. He trained with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL before returning to the team on April 5 in Pittsburgh.

“The organization did a great job of helping me get the help I needed,” Byram said. “That’s how it is in the rearview mirror. Now I’m just focused on the playoffs.”

Johnson was a sounding board for Byram, whose skating strongly reminds the veteran of Hall of Famer defender Scott Niedermayer.

Simply a high-draft pick that helps the other — Johnson was ranked No. 1 overall by St. Louis in 2006, and Byram was fourth by Colorado in 2019. Byram has become a perceptive student and takes Johnson’s advice. Byram has seven assists so far in the postseason, with Johnson recording one goal and four assists.

“He just keeps getting better,” said Johnson, who was traded to Colorado in February 2011 and is currently the longest-serving athlete on Denver’s big four sports teams. “If I can expedite this process… gladly.”

When the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001, they boasted a Blue Line core that included Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. This version goes just as deep, starring Devon Toews and Makar, along with 35-year-old Jack Johnson and Josh Manson, and Byram and Johnson. Samuel Girard is out after suffering a broken sternum in a St. Louis series hit.

Recently, Byram was hinted that he was four days away from birth when the Avalanche took home the title in seven games against the New Jersey Devils in 2001.

“I saw a tweet about it the other day and had to chuckle,” Byram said. “It would be nice to win a trophy here.”

Avalanche trainer Jared Bednar suspected that this pairing 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 attuned to what’s going on. So it’s important to have a guy back there who’s kind of relaxed and can talk. Erik and Bowen did a good job when I was promoted. I liked them together.

It’s a deep bond despite the age difference.

“We like to fool around, joke a little off the ice and give each other a hard time,” Johnson said. “But we found good chemistry on the ice and we play well together.

“It was a good marriage, a good partnership for us. So yes, really enjoy it a lot. A great kid and the sky is the limit.”

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