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Tollefsen in the spotlight; Johnson watches from the press box

February 20, 2007

There is an article in today’s Dispatch highlighting the decent season being had by rookie defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. Aaron Portzline does a good job chronicling OK’s growth, especially compared to expectations.

Tollefsen’s rise in the ranks of the defensive corps was a bit of a surprise, when it was expected that Aaron Johnson would be the next young blueliner to be a regular. Portzline goes on to state:

Injuries to Berard (back surgery) and Westcott (concussion) have helped clear room on the blue line, and while Johnson has struggled — he’s been scratched the past five games — Tollefsen has jumped at the opportunity.

Long-term injuries as noted to Berard and Westcott have certainly opened the door and allowed Tollefsen and Johnson to play regularly. I won’t disagree that Tollefsen has been the better player of the two, either. But Portzline’s claim that Johnson has struggled lately I don’t think is a completely accurate picture of the situation at hand.

Aaron was -2 in his last game played against Phoenix, but his recent string of healthy scratches (7 of last 8 games) has coincided with Bryan Berard’s return from injury.

It’s been no secret since Berard has returned that he is being actively shopped to teams before the trade deadline (Doug MacLean said as much in today’s Dispatch, and not for the first time). Prospective trade partners would consider Bryan a risk proposition (and likely still will to a degree) if he did not play as much as possible once he was cleared to play. With Johnson being the sixth defenseman on a team with an injured Berard, he quickly becomes the seventh on a team that needs to showcase Berard in order to move him and must sit to accommodate.

As Portzline mentions, Johnson cannot be sent to Syracuse without first clearing waivers. At his current salary ($450,000, of which only roughly $126,000 remains this season), it’s a near certainty that Aaron would be playing in a different uniform (a la Ron Hainsey last year).

The blueline is young, to be sure, and probably getting younger with Berard very likely gone (either in the next week or by the end of the season). But I have confidence that the youthful core of the defense will continue to grow and someday soon be something in which to take pride.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench. Come back soon.

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