Finding His Stride
VOORHEES, N.J. – The only remnant is a 2-inch pink scar on his left wrist.
For Erik Gustafsson though, it is a reminder of just how hard it is to make it to the NHL.
With the Flyers in need of a defenseman because of various injuries last season, Gustafsson, along with fellow defensive prospects Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall were given the chance to play a good chunk of games at the NHL level for the first time.
Gustafsson and Bourdon were both impressing the Flyers brass enough that the team traded Marshall, and leaned on their other two, young, defensive prospects to fill the void at the NHL level.
It was the culmination of a lifelong pursuit for Gustafsson, who felt he was ready to stake a claim to a regular NHL spot and not let go.
At first, it appeared positive for Gustafsson. In just his fifth game of the season, he became the first Flyers rookie to post a rating of plus-6 in a game since 1984.
And while he was certainly receiving plenty of accolades for that performance – a game in which he played 23 minutes, the most amount of ice time in his young career - he was probably a bit fortunate that night, not really being involved in three of the six goals he was on the ice for, it was the last game he’d play in quite awhile.
In that memorable game, Gustafsson damaged the sheathing that protects tendons in his wrist and needed it to be repaired surgically.
He didn’t make it back to the NHL for nine weeks.
Even then, he really wasn’t himself. Taking a couple months off in the middle of a season is terrible for an athlete. It’s almost like the offseason workouts and training camp have to commence all over again.
He played another month without accumulating even one point. He only took six shots in that span.
But all the while he was taking regular, or semi-regular shifts, and gaining plenty of experience.
He played pretty continually through the end of March before taking another hiatus.
He returned in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, even scoring a goal in the series clinching game against the Pens – when he played 22:09.
He also skated in each of the five playoff games against New Jersey, which had the Flyers feeling good about Gustafsson, 23, moving forward.
Now, after another summer of training and working on his strength and speed, Gustafsson is ready to finish what he started a season ago.
“It’s been a great summer,” he said. “I’ve had no setbacks at all. I’ve been working a little bit on strengthening the wrist, but otherwise I’ve just been working on the strength schedule (assistant strength and conditioning coach) Ryan Podell gave me and I feel like I’m in really good shape.”
Gustafsson also practiced during the summer in Sweden with Timra IK of the Swedish Elite League and is looking forward for the start of the NHL season, so he can solidify his chances of being in the NHL every day.
“I think this is the best opportunity I’ve had so far within the Flyers organization,” he said. “I think I finally found my game at the end of last year, and I hope I can carry that over and be even better this year. I want to show everyone that I deserve a spot on the roster and to get [more] playing time.”
And considering the Flyers situation on defense, which is marred with injuries, there is a chance that Gustafsson can do just that.
“He’s come along nicely,” said general manager Paul Holmgren. “His first year here he was able to get in a full season with the Phantoms and put up really good numbers as an offensive guy who played all situations and was able to pick up the tempo of the game.
“He had to get quicker and his skating needed to improve while he was adapting. I think the brief number of games that he played for the Flyers – he did a good job of containing, and that’s what stood out in our minds.
“He’s always going to have some difficulty because he’s a smaller statured guy, especially compared to some of the forwards he plays against, but if you’re smart, and you have a good stick and are competitive, you can play around those deficiencies.”
And that’s what the Flyers believe they have in Gustafsson. Good thing for them, he feels the same way.