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Eriksson blossoming before our eyes

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

What Stars fans have been witnessing over the last several weeks has been nothing less than the coming of age of third-year left winger Loui Eriksson.

While the club has struggled through a roller-coaster, up-and-down beginning to the 2008-09 season, Eriksson has been one of the Stars’ steadiest, most consistent players, and he has supplied impressive offensive contributions along the way.

With an outstanding two-goal performance last Saturday night in a much-needed 3-2 victory in Phoenix, Eriksson leads the team with eight goals and ranks fifth with 12 points in 18 games. He also sits third on the club with a +2 plus/minus rating, and he’s taken just one minor penalty all season.

Beyond the numbers, though, Eriksson brings excellent defensive play as well, something that Dallas has desperately needed as they try to work themselves out of a 6-9-3 funk to start the year that has them in last place in the Pacific Division. 

“I’m feeling good out there,” said Eriksson, 23, who’s already more than halfway to his career-high of 14 goals, set last year. “I’m trying to play hard defensively, I work hard on my game and I’ve been able to score, too. It’s always fun to do that.”

“He just continues to improve every day,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s just a solid two-way player, he’s finding some pucks around the net. I think that’s why people are noticing him more, but he’s a very good two-way player. He plays the game hard, he plays the game the way it should be played positionally, sound in all aspects. We’re using him on both power play and penalty kill this year, and he’s just been a good player for us.”

One other barometer that demonstrates Eriksson’s advanced progress this season is his ice time. He’s averaging 18:49 per game, fifth on the team among forwards and a significant increase over the 14:02 he logged last season when he totaled 31 points in 69 games.

After a rough beginning to 2007-08, which also saw the 6-foot-1, 190-pound native of Goteborg, Sweden, assigned to AHL Iowa for two games last November, Eriksson improved as the season went along. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he was a key component to their success. He scored four goals and eight points in 18 games, while averaging 18:11 of ice time per contest, and helping the Stars advance to the sixth game of the Western Conference Finals. 

Eriksson carried that impressive performance over to this Fall and has built upon it even more to qualify as probably the Stars’ most consistent player so far this season.
“He’s been playing well since the beginning of the year,” noted center Mike Ribeiro, who assisted on both of Eriksson’s goals in Phoenix. “He’s not a guy you’ll often see, but he does everything right, the little details right, and he’s always in the right position defensively. He’s a guy with good size, too, he can protect that puck close to the net. He’s been playing really well for us, has been probably our best player. It’s nice to see that he’s putting the puck in the net and helping the team win some games.”

“I would say you could go right back to last year, he’s been consistent,” Tippett added. “He had a great playoffs, he’s a good player. He’s a quiet, confident player.”

His solid play at both ends of the ice has even earned him comparisons to veteran teammate Jere Lehtinen, a three-time Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defensive forward and a seven-time 20-goal scorer. Lehtinen is one of the most complete two-way players of his generation and very highly respected, so to be mentioned in the same breath as him is heady praise indeed.

“I also compare him a little bit to Jere, because he does a lot of the same things on the ice that Jere does,” Tippett said. “Sometimes, he’ll go unnoticed throughout the game, but when you watch the film afterwards, you see a lot of good things that he did, whether he scores or he doesn’t score, he still does a lot of positive things in the game.” 

“Of course, I’ve been looking up to him because he’s played a lot of years,” Eriksson said of Lehtinen, who just returned to the Dallas lineup last week after missing the first 14 games with a lower body injury. “It’s always fun to be compared to him, but I don’t know. Lehts is a really good player and he’s good defensively. At times, I play pretty good defensively, too, so maybe that’s why they think that I’m a little like him.”

As honored and humbled as he felt to be likened to Lehtinen, Eriksson acknowledged that he has tried to emulate him.

“Yeah, I watch him a little bit,” Eriksson said. “He doesn’t do many faults out there, he always plays simple and can put it in, almost never has any turnovers - so he’s a guy who’s a really good player to look up to.” 

Eriksson has displayed solid defensive skills since he was recalled from Iowa to join the Stars for good in November 2006, just over a year after he made the jump to North America from Sweden. But it is his amplified offensive dimension that has engendered the comparisons to Lehtinen. 

Eriksson’s current level of production is what Stars fans have been hoping he could deliver ever since Dallas selected him in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2003 Entry Draft. Some fans may have gotten a little impatient waiting for him to develop, because he’s flashed this type of potential since he scored a goal in his NHL debut in the 2006-07 season opener. But Eriksson’s progress has been steady and at just the right pace, as far as club management is concerned.

“If you see his track record through his career, it took him a while to get going in the American League and once he did, he started to score,” Tippett said, referring to Eriksson’s 31-goal, 60-point season in Iowa in 2005-06. “He’s found his niche in here and he’s started to put some goals in the net. You’d love to see a guy come in and score like crazy, but he earns his confidence. He does things within the structure of the game that are done very well, and maybe you don’t get rewarded for that early, but as we see now, the work from the last couple of years is starting to pay off for him. So that’s a credit to him, he works hard at his game, he’s always trying to get better, and sometimes you just have to earn that confidence to feel like you can put pucks in the net and that’s where he’s at.”

His sometime linemates agree that the biggest difference this season with Eriksson is his confidence - and also the extra ice time.

“I think it’s more confidence than anything else,” Ribeiro said. “He’s got good size, good speed, I think his main thing is that he puts himself in good position, he’s a guy that plays the PK. I think confidence is the big word here.”

“He’s playing with confidence, he’s shooting the puck,” added captain Brenden Morrow. “He’s around the crease, he’s around pucks and they’re finding him and he’s got some big goals for us. I don’t know if it’s opportunity, but he’s just confident. Maybe where he would pass up a shot, he’s shooting it now and they’re finding their ways in for him.”

As Morrow indicated, Eriksson has been making a concerted effort to go to the net more, and that has paid major dividends for him, as most of his goals have come from in close.

“I’ve been trying to stay more in front, like the last goal against Phoenix was a rebound and I stayed in front and I put it in,” said Eriksson, referring to his first career NHL game-winning goal. “I think that’s where you usually score the most goals, so I’ll stay there and score goals.”

For a team that is still trying to right its ship after some shaky early-season sailing, Eriksson’s ability to produce at both ends of the rink will continue to be a crucial element to their success.
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