PHILADELPHIA – Erik Gustafsson could have taken his demotion the wrong way. He could have gone back to the Adirondack Phantoms earlier this season and pouted.
He could have taken a sour attitude that he wasn’t given a fair shake in this, his third professional season, to prove that he belongs in the NHL full-time.
Many players in a similar spot to Gustafsson have done that in the past – leading either to a one-way ticket out of the organization, or to a career in the AHL always just a step shy of making it to the show.
But Gustafsson was smart. He realized that there was a reason the Flyers wanted him to go back to Adirondack. He understood that there were a couple specific things he needed to fine tune in his game, before he could come back for good.
Primarily, Gustafsson needed to slow down.
That sounds strange – or counterproductive – in a game that’s built predominantly around speed, but for Gustafsson it wasn’t so much about a physical slow down as it was a mental slowdown.
For whatever reason, Gustafsson was playing at a mental speed that was akin to a 33RPM album being played at 45 speed.
And for those of you who don’t remember a turntable, just imagine your favorite song playing on your iPod, but instead of your favorite artist singing it, Alvin and the Chipmunks are hyperactively crooning away.
That’s how Gustafsson, 24, was playing with the Flyers earlier this season. He made too many decisions without thinking. He put too much pressure on himself to complete a play that he ended up unintentionally skipping steps along the way.
There were turnovers born out of too quick decisions to give up the puck. There were shots he was envisioning in his head that never materialized because he wasn’t focused enough to actually catch the pass to set up the shot.
It was, quite simply a matter of getting his mind and his body playing at the same speed. Which sounds easy, but isn’t.
“I’ve just been playing a simpler game,” Gustafsson said. “I said to myself to just go out and play my game the same way I play in the American League. It’s definitely different here with the big crowds and all the media attention and stuff like that, but if I play confident, don’t overthink it I know I have poise on the ice and it’s just a matter of time.
“Sometimes you should hold on to the puck and sometimes you should just go off the glass and get it out. Finding a balance there has been tricky, but I think I’m getting it.”
He’s getting it to a point where he is being called upon to play in more crucial situations for the Flyers – a lot of times out of necessity – as the Flyers have so many injuries on the blue line, but the minutes have continued to come for Gustafsson – and it’s because he’s taken advantage of his opportunities.
“He’s played really well for us and this is maybe the best he’s looked since he’s been up with us,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s had a game or two here and there… but consistency is what’s important. This has been his best stint up here.
“He’s skating really strong. When he gets the puck he’s making good decisions to find time and space with his head up and then makes passes. He’s defended really well and he’s playing in all situations for us. It’s been a good opportunity for him to gain ice time and he looks confident right now which he should be with the way he’s playing.”
Gustafsson went three weeks between stints with the Flyers this season with a trip to Adirondack in the middle.
He only cracked 20 minutes of ice time four times in 11 games the first trip up to the big club whereas he’s done it six times in the last 11 games since his recall, including the past five games consecutively.
He’s scored a goal in each of the past two games and his ice time in the last three games were the top three of his career (24:21 vs. Buffalo, 24:35 vs. Montreal and 23:15 vs. New York).
“I can’t really say enough about the coaching staff about the opportunity they are giving me,” Gustafsson said. “Playing minutes is what you need to develop and gain confidence and that’s what they’ve given me. It’s been huge for me ever since I got back up here.
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