GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – A chill in the Friday night air in the Adirondacks welcomed Erik Gustafsson soon after his team had played a bad game against the Syracuse Crunch.
Gustafsson, who has been playing the biggest minutes on defense for the Phantoms, remained even-tempered despite his team’s fourth loss in five games.
It certainly wasn’t the greatest start to a season for the 24-year-old defensive prospect, but it also wasn’t the worst beginning. Sure, he struggled a little out of the gate – maybe failing to realize that the AHL this season, with an influx of NHL talent, was going to be better than the last time he played here – but in recent games, despite his team coming up on the short end of the scoreboard, had seen improvement it Gustafsson’s game.
The next night, against Albany, Gustafsson played his best game of the young season. He was on the ice for more than 27 minutes, killing penalties and quarterbacking the power play, a unit on which he scored his first goal of the season, and his teammates joined him in ramping up their efforts winning 4-0.
On his way out of the arena, into the same brisk air that greeted him 24 hours earlier, Gustafsson was still on an emotional even keel.
See, no matter win or lose, the Flyers top defensive prospect keeps his emotions in check.
“I want to bring a high level of consistency to every game and play well every game,” he said. “I haven’t had that before. I want to be really good player every game… I want to give my coaches confidence to play me the tough minutes.”
That confidence is there. Gustafsson is one of only seven Phantoms to have played in each of the team’s first 14 games. When you look at the other six, it’s populated with names that are primarily familiar to Flyers fans – Ben Holmstrom, Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, Marc-Andre Bourdon, etc.
There’s no question that these are the players the Flyers are hoping will be key contributors within the organization, either at the NHL level, the AHL level, or both, once the NHL season commences.
And Gustafsson is near the top of that list, and may be at the top when it comes to defensemen.
“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.”
Which is precisely what Gustafsson has been doing in recent games.
“That might have been his best game of the year,” coach Terry Murray said of Gustafsson’s effort against Albany Nov. 3. “He was seeing the ice, moved the puck well and got involved physically. He played with a little bit of an edge to his game and that’s nice to see.”
It’s what the Flyers are hoping from Gustafsson while he is down on the farm. He gained valuable NHL experience last season for sure, including playing in the playoffs, where he scored a goal in the series clinching win against Pittsburgh, but they feel Gustafsson can be an all-situations defender – much in the mold of Kimmo Timonen – if he shows an ability to play to his strengths on a game-in, game-out basis.
“We’re looking for consistency in his play,” said Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy. “That’s the biggest thing that your game doesn’t have too many peaks and valleys. It’s more of a mental focus than a physical one. The mental part is the toughest thing to adjust to on a regular basis. If he can limit mistakes and be focused he can be a really strong contributor for us.
“He’s one of those guys who can play both sides of the game. His biggest asset is he can skate himself out of trouble. He has the ability to separate himself from opponents and he moves puck well and has good hands… he puts passes on tape and does it under pressure. That’s an ability you’d like all defensemen to have.”
And once Gustafsson puts it all together, the hope is he can be a huge part of the Flyers organization, possibly even at the NHL level.
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