If you ask any NHL player, chances are they’ll tell you that being sent down to the AHL isn’t a pleasant experience.
And that’s no slight to the AHL, a very intense and competitive league that has served as a fantastic developmental platform for over 70 years – but in most cases, it’s a demotion and a signal to a player that he must earn his way back to the NHL.
Tim Erixon found himself in that boat earlier this season, when he was assigned to the Springfield Falcons during training camp. Part of the equation was a numbers game in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have an abundance of NHL-caliber defensemen under contract and two of them (David Savard, Cody Goloubef) required waivers in order to be assigned.
The second part of the equation was that Erixon needed to be better. He was passed on the Jackets’ depth chart despite playing a role on a team that nearly made the playoffs last spring in Columbus; but rather than dwell on the negative aspect of not making the team out of camp, Erixon re-focused and started red-hot with the Falcons.
“(Being sent down) wasn’t something I wanted, obviously, but there are tough decisions when you have so much depth," Erixon told BlueJackets.com. "You don’t want to be in the AHL, but that’s the way it is right now. My job is to work hard, play hard and work on my game. Like I said, it’s still hockey and it’s fun every day. This makes me want it even more, and to do whatever I can to get back to Columbus as soon as possible.”
When he began the 2012-13 season in Springfield (during the NHL lockout), Erixon was one of the Falcons' most trusted defensemen and earned ice time in all situations.
He became a fixture on the power play because of his vision and quick shot from the point, and as he continued to progress, he became a call-up option when the Blue Jackets needed help on defense.
Erixon made his Jackets debut on Jan. 31, 2013 and played 31 games with Columbus last season. The fact that his prolonged NHL stint didn't translate to a spot on the opening night roster this year was more motivation than frustration for Erixon, who returned to Springfield this fall and once again asserted himself as a top-pairing defenseman.
“I’ve been getting quite a bit of ice time and I’m playing in a lot of different situations, especially on the power play," Erixon said. "It’s been fun, and it’s always fun to play a big role like that. At the end of the day it’s hockey, and it’s fun, and I’m excited to be out there playing. We have a good team here, and I know most of the guys from being in camp here and playing part of the season here.
"I feel like I’m progressing well with my game, and continuing to work on the things that (Blue Jackets management) asked me to work on. I’m trying to be more aggressive and move my feet more, and I’m trying to keep that in mind.”
The resources available to the young defensemen in the Blue Jackets organization have been key to his development, Erixon said. Craig Hartsburg, who coaches the defense in Columbus, played 570 games in a 10-year NHL career and has been coaching in the league since 1989. Nolan Pratt, defense coach in Springfield, played 11 seasons in the NHL and is a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
Being able to pick their brains and learn from their experiences - some very similar to what he's currently going through - has been extremely valuable.
“You look at the number of pro games they’ve played and coached...I think it’s been very helpful and they have so much experience to pass on to us," Erixon said. "(Hartsburg) has coached for a long time, and Nolan’s a guy you definitely look to as he was playing not that long ago. (Jared Bednar) and Brad Larsen are great resources, too.
"They always make sure we’re working hard and doing the right things. It’s a good situation for us.”