may have a penchant for showing up late, but don’t apply that notion to the pace of his development as an important contributor to the Dallas Stars.
According to his good friend and roommate on the road Joel Lundqvist, Eriksson is habitually tardy when getting ready to go anywhere, but it’s a trait that Lundqvist has come to terms with.
“He’s always late,” joked Lundqvist. “In the start, I was always waiting for him, but now, when I’m ready, I just leave. He usually comes about five minutes after me to breakfast or the bus or whatever. I get tired of waiting for him sometimes, but we get along really well and it’s good to have him there.”
The Stars are happy Eriksson is there as well. The native of Goteborg, Sweden, started his second NHL season somewhat slow, but found his stride in mid-December and hasn’t looked back since. In 39 games since Dec. 15, the 6-foot-1, 183-pound winger collected eleven goals and 22 points, surpassing his rookie totals of six goals and 19 points that took him 59 games to compile last year. Eriksson was also among the team’s leaders in takeaways.
“I’m playing a little bit more and I think it’s working really good,” Eriksson said of his recent performance. “I’ve played lots of games here and I just try to be a little better every day. Every win is important right now, so I’m just trying to focus on my game. I want to play good for the team, and it’s been going good.”
While it may seem to Stars fans that his maturation into a key performer has been a little delayed, it’s probably just because he’s been touted as the organization’s top prospect since he was Dallas’ first selection (33rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. His progress has been steady, but at 22, he’s still learning and continually improving, gradually evolving into the player the Stars always thought he would become.
“I think he’s maturing and realizing that he deserves to be in the league and will do things to be in the league, rather than just hoping to be here,” Stars Head Coach Dave Tippett said. “He skates well and does all the fundamentals very well. Now, he’s just starting to get the confidence that he knows he can play in a lot of different situations and he knows he’s relied upon to contribute. He’s maturing to where he takes the responsibility of being a very good NHL player.”
As the Stars rolled up a franchise record-tying seven-game winning streak following the All-Star break, Eriksson fit in well on a line with offensive forwards Jussi Jokinen and Niklas Hagman. He registered three assists over a four-game stretch with the trio, and perhaps more importantly, was earning more ice time, including some minutes on the power play.
“He’s definitely played better and better,” said Hagman, who has already established new career highs of his own in goals and points this season. “With a lot of players, me included, it definitely has a lot to do with confidence and getting a chance to play. And you see, when he gets a chance to play and he has his confidence, he keeps the puck really well on the boards, in the corners. Our line likes to keep the puck, cycle it and then create chances out of that, and the few games that we’ve played together, he’s played really good.”
For his part, Eriksson enjoyed playing with the two talented Finns and doesn’t mind that he’s been shifted around to a variety of combinations this year as Tippett searched for the right fit for him.
“I’m a young player, so I have to go through different situations,” Eriksson shrugged. “For me, it’s just fun to play with whichever players they put me with.”
Fans who watched him in the 2006-07 season opener in Colorado caught the first glimpses of his impressive abilities when, after somewhat unexpectedly winning a job out of training camp, Eriksson became just the third Star since the club arrived from Minnesota in 1993 to score a goal in his NHL debut (joining mid-1990s players Jarkko Varvio and Mike Kennedy), a 3-2 come-from-behind OT victory.
“That was amazing, I can’t describe that feeling, it was a wonderful feeling,” Eriksson said of his first goal. “First game, we won the game in overtime too, I will always remember that.”
He was assigned to the AHL Iowa Stars, Dallas’ top minor league affiliate, the very next day after Dallas acquired Mike Ribeiro
, but Eriksson returned in mid-November. Initially recalled as an injury replacement, Eriksson’s play dictated that he remain in Dallas the rest of last season, suiting up for 59 contests. On the heels of such a successful rookie year, Eriksson entered this season shouldering lofty expectations of increased responsibilities and production.
“We’re not just hoping he’ll be good, we need him to be good,” Tippett said back in training camp. “His rookie season’s over with, he’s coming in now and we expect big things from him. We told him this summer that it’s not just about coming in and making this team, it’s that ‘you have to come in and contribute.’”
Unfortunately, perhaps due in part to the additional pressure placed on him, he started slowly, was scratched from the lineup a couple of times and struggled with his confidence.
“I played 59 games last year, so this season, I wanted to prove that I could play in the NHL all the time, so there was a little bit of pressure,” Eriksson admitted. “There are a lot of good players on this team, a lot of tough competition. I was a healthy scratch a couple of games, but that’s something you have to learn from and grow from.”
After sitting out 10 of the first 16 games and earning just one assist in the contests he did skate in, Eriksson was assigned to Iowa in early November. It was disappointing to go back to the team he starred for in 2005-06, when he led Iowa with 31 goals and was second on the club with 60 points in his first season in North America, but the experience allowed him to get some much-needed playing time.
“It was a little bit disappointing,” Eriksson acknowledged. “I didn’t play in three games in a row here for Dallas, so it was probably good for me to get some more ice time and work on the things I did well last year in Iowa. It was fun to go down, I know all the guys down there, and I played power play, penalty kill, everything. I went down and I felt the puck more and just created some more chances down there, so it was probably good for me. ”
The two-game stint helped him regain some of his lost confidence and that made a big difference.
“It’s tough when maybe you don’t play that much and you don’t have the confidence,” Hagman said. “You get the puck and you just kind of throw it away, or you get the puck and it just seems like you don’t have hands. It’s tough and now you see, when he gets the puck, he tries to hold onto it, tries to make something.”
“Probably confidence with the puck,” noted Lundqvist, regarding the aspect Eriksson has improved upon the most since returning from Iowa. “He likes to hold onto the puck and make some plays and you get that when you play more. You feel more comfortable and can handle the speed out there. That’s the biggest key.”
He has been a more valuable player since re-joining the Stars primarily because he’s been more consistent, an attribute Eriksson has worked hard at cultivating.
“It’s something you have to do, it’s your job to do that,” he said. “You have to play consistent and play every night as well as you can.”
Lundqvist, also in his second season in Dallas, knows better than most that Eriksson is blossoming into the type of player everyone predicted he would, since he has known and played with him for years. Besides being teammates in both Iowa and Dallas last season, Eriksson and Lundqvist skated together with the Vastra Frolunda Indians of the Swedish Elite League.
“I played with him with Frolunda for two years, and we won the Swedish Elite League in 2005, the lockout year,” Eriksson confirmed. “Plus, we played in Iowa together and we’re from the same town, so it’s nice to be playing together here.”
Each player acknowledged that the other’s presence has made his adjustment to NHL life a little easier. Also, having fellow Swedes like defensemen Mattias Norstrom and Nicklas Grossman around, not to mention assistant coach Ulf Dahlen, has been beneficial.
“It makes it easier to have someone to speak your own language,” Lundqvist said. “We’re roommates on the road, so it’s fun to have a buddy there to joke around with and lean on.”
“It’s always good to have some Swedish players you can talk to by yourself,” Eriksson added. “Plus, having Dahlen on the coaching staff is good for us. He’s coming and telling us what to do on the ice and helping us a lot.”
Eriksson’s emergence has clearly helped the Stars become a more balanced offensive club and he’s only going to continue to improve as the season, and his career, progress.
“He’s a skilled player with good speed, a good skater who is good with the puck, and I think that he’s been showing now what type of game he has,” Lundqvist said. “That’s the kind of player I recognize from back home, too. I think he is really starting to show that here.”
“He’s an all-around player,” Tippett said. “He’s a real responsible player, plays a strong two-way game and his play is solid. We need him to continue that.”