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Erik Johnson meeting Avs' challenge

In the wake of the Colorado Avalanche's stunning return to prominence last season -- they won the Central Division when most expected they would miss the playoffs -- head coach Patrick Roy took defenseman Erik Johnson aside and told him the team wanted more.

Well, actually less.

As in less bulk and less weight, which would allow the former No. 1 draft pick to deliver more. As in more speed, more agility and more offense, which would allow the coaching staff to bestow more responsibility on Johnson.

And while the Avs began this season looking more like the 2012-13 version that finished dead last in the Western Conference, they are slowly digging themselves out of a very deep early-season hole. And one of the guys doing a lot of shoveling is Johnson.

After dropping 10 pounds in the offseason, Johnson has become an offensive force while taking on more and more responsibility on the defensive side of the puck.

As the Avalanche began their longest road trip of the season -- they will visit five cities in eight days beginning with a Monday date with the red-hot Washington Capitals -- Johnson leads all NHL defensemen with 12 goals and leads all Avs in average ice time at 24:18 a night. And the Avs have closed to within four points of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

"It's turned around for us right now," Johnson said. "But we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

Wedged in with the work that lies before the Avs and Johnson in the second half is a trip to Columbus and the NHL's All-Star Weekend.

It will be Johnson's first All-Star Game.

No doubt the All-Star Game is a mug's game in terms of who deserves to go and who gets snubbed, but in this case, Johnson is full value for his inclusion, and not just for his impressive statistical report card but for his importance to a revitalized Avs team.

Johnson said the Avalanche had realistic expectations about replicating what happened last season with their 112-point effort. Still, no one expected them to start with just four wins in their first 17 games (a year ago they had 14 wins over that same period).

Games that they found ways to win a year ago, this season they found ways to lose, Johnson said.

Teams that might have taken the team lightly last season were tuned up to play the Avalanche, who boasted the defending coach of the year in Roy, the defending rookie of the year in Nathan MacKinnon and a Vezina Trophy finalist in Semyon Varlamov.

"We weren't going to sneak up on anybody this year," Johnson told ESPN.com on the eve of the team's road trip. "Now we have the attention of everybody."

But as the Avalanche managed to get through injuries, they started to rediscover the groove they were in for much of last season.

One of the reasons the team has had success of late, Johnson said, is that the team stayed on task and the coaching staff never let the guys get down on each other.

Last season, Roy began his tenure as an NHL head coach with an open-door policy, an open partnership with the players, Johnson said.

"I know a lot of coaches who say that and it's completely the opposite. But he does that," Johnson said. "That's refreshing as a player."

Even when things went sideways at the start of the season that policy remained in place and Roy kept pushing his team to get better without veering off track himself.

"At the start of the year, he did remain really even keeled," Johnson said.

"I wasn't really surprised. You really learn a lot about yourself and your teammates and your coaches when things aren't going well. It's easy to be all hunky-dory when you're winning. When you're losing it can rear an ugly head."

The team did make adjustments, moving from a man-on-man defensive system to a zone style of defense that cut down on opponents' scoring chances.

And slowly the team has climbed back into the playoff discussion.

The Avs are a study in renaissance: A team that became an afterthought for many seasons in what was once a top hockey market suddenly recaptures some of its past glory. And Johnson has, too, on an individual level.

The first overall pick by the St. Louis Blues in the 2006 draft missed his entire rookie season following an offseason knee injury sustained on the eve of training camp. He was ultimately dealt to Colorado before the trade deadline in 2011. And in his first 126 games in Denver, he scored seven times.

Last season, though, Johnson took a bigger leadership role under Roy and scored nine times.

At the end of last season, Roy told Johnson to change his offseason routines because the coach had bigger plans for his big defender.

Johnson, who is an imposing 6-foot-4 and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Vancouver in 2010, was told not to pump weights all summer, but to slim down to improve his endurance.

So the Minnesota native worked out with personal trainer Andy O'Brien, whose clients include defending Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby. And Johnson really didn't touch a weight all summer.

"He said, 'You're strong enough already,'" Johnson recalled O'Brien saying.

Instead, the two worked on mobility and agility.

The result was a loss of 10 pounds and a fresher Johnson on the ice. His recovery time is shorter, he is able to do more when he is on the ice, including jumping into the play, and his lateral movement has improved -- all keys to getting shots on goal and resulting in his dramatic goal production.

"I have the gas to get up in the play," Johnson said. "And it's helped my lateral mobility. I just feel that I have a more expansive repertoire right now, just in using my size and quickness.

"You kind of learn about yourself. You kind of learn what suits you as a player," he said of his physical transformation.

"It's made a world of difference for me. You kind of learn what your body needs."

How dramatic has Johnson's offensive turnaround been?

Last season he had nine goals in 80 games, one off his career best. He is now on pace to score 24.

Longtime NHLer and national broadcast analyst Ray Ferraro told ESPN.com he sees a less "erratic" Johnson than in the past.

"Less likely to get caught," Ferraro added.

"Aggressive without being careless. That's a change for sure."

The All-Star invitation is a nice acknowledgement of the challenges Johnson has met, and by extension the Avalanche.

"It's very gratifying. I'm honored and humbled by it," Johnson said. "I obviously had a couple of rough years where I wasn't playing the hockey I was capable of."

But this is proof that if you believe in yourself and believe in your skills, "you can do anything," Johnson said.