Golden Gus

Erik Gustafsson won gold at the World Championships, and opened eyes too.

Tuesday, 05.21.2013 / 11:29 AM
Anthony SanFilippo  - Philadelphia Flyers Inside Reporter

On Monday evening, the party was still going on in Stockholm from the night before.

Winning the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships means that much in Sweden – perhaps even more so since it was the host of the 2013 event.

Smack dab in the middle of the celebration was Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson, who not only was on the Swedish roster, but starred as the top defenseman for his homeland en route to the gold medal.

Gustafsson averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time in each of the 10 games Sweden played in the World Championships, the most of any player on his team and ahead of fellow NHL defensemen Alexander Edler and Henrik Tallinder.

Gustafsson finished with a goal and an assist and was tied for the team lead in plus/minus as a plus-7 for the tournament.

“I feel like I played my best hockey ever,” Gustafsson said from a championship celebration party Monday. “It all started though with the way I finished the season with the Flyers and it carried over here. I know it was on bigger ice, and that makes a little bit of a difference, but I had the confidence of the coaches and I felt like I played a good tournament.”

His feeling was mutual with those who watched him play.

The Flyers dispatched Director of Player Personnel Dave Brown to Stockholm and Helsinki to watch the 10 Flyers players participating in the World Championships and he too felt Gustafsson was playing at his best level.

“I thought he played great,” Brown said. “He was arguably their best defenseman. He played in all situations. He moved the puck very well. He played power play and a little penalty kill too. He’s turning into a very good overall player. We were really happy with his performance over there.”

Gustafsson was matched up frequently against the best lines for the opposing countries, and in the two games against Canada, he saw himself on the ice often against a solid line of Andrew Ladd, Steven Stamkos and teammate Claude Giroux.

“It was a huge honor,” Gustafsson said. “It was something I dreamt about since I was a little kid. I used to watch Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg and those guys play for the National Team so to get that opportunity was unbelievable. And to play a lot against some of the best players in the world was really good for my confidence.”

Confidence was the main sticking point for Gustafson during the season with the Flyers.

After returning from a hairline fracture in his foot that cost him the start of the season, Gustafsson started off strong for the Flyers before tailing off.

He was playing a bit jittery and overthinking the simplicities of his job, which led to turnovers, missed passes and flubbed shots.

The Flyers sent him back to the Adirondack Phantoms, where he worked with the coaching staff – specifically assistant coach, and fellow Swede Kjell Samuelsson – to refocus on fundamentals and get a better understanding of how much time he has and the space that is available to him on the ice.

It seemed to work, because upon his recall to the Flyers, Gustafsson was a different player and down the stretch proved to be one of the Flyers more reliable rearguards. After the season he joined Team Sweden and saw his game continue to blossom.

“Playing in a tournament like that can only make him better,” Brown said. “I think it’s a matter of time and experience for a guy like Erik. As you get older you get smarter and find out what works and what doesn’t. He’s still not even in his prime. We are excited with where he is right now and we think he’ll be a good player for us going forward.”

Gustafsson, 25, is a restricted free agent this summer, but he said he doesn’t anticipate there will be much of a delay in coming to a new deal with the Flyers.

“I’m close to a contract with the Flyers,” Gustafsson said. “I really like it there and I’m talking to my agent and I’m sure we’ll have something done on that in the next few weeks.”

Gustafsson said he will be back in the Philadelphia area a couple times during the summer, but will be back full-time in August to prepare for training camp.

“My goal is to get back there and make the roster out of training camp and be a good player on the team,” he said. “I want to continue to ride the same wave I’m on right now.”

To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email asanfilippo@comcast-spectacor.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37

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