Just over a month remains until the Philadelphia Flyers will reunite for training camp. A few old faces are gone, and a few new ones arrived this summer.
To say the Flyers struggled on the defensive front is a huge understatement. Coach Peter Laviolette may have gotten better results if he threw a couple orange pylons onto the ice. Despite the defensive woes, a few silver linings emerged. Oliver Lauridsen impressed in limited action . Luke Schenn found his game and Kimmo Timonen showed he can still be productive while playing most of the season on a fractured foot.
After Schenn, Erik Gustafsson makes a strong case for the Flyers’ biggest surprise of the season. The 24-year-old defenseman only played in 27 games in 2013, but he should be considered for the final spot on the opening roster for this year.
Through February and March Gustafsson saw limited action. He scored two points in 14 games while his average time-on-ice hovered between 15 and 20 minutes a game. When April rolled around, Gustafsson began to make more appearances on the stat sheet. With increased ice time – more than 20 minutes a game- he piled up six points in 13 games.
Gustafsson stayed hot in the World Championships. He played in every game, almost logged 24 minutes a game (23:59), and led Sweden in plus-minus with +7. His point production dipped – only two points in 10 games – but played solid defense, moved the puck well. He scored his only goal in the gold medal game.
What makes Gustafsson’s World Championship play even more impressive is that his NHL experience is limited and he had no previous national team experience. Not at the junior levels. Not at the senior levels.
There are few obstacles in the way of Gustafsson making the Flyers’ roster. One is training camp itself. He has to keep his strong play going, or he will find himself back in the A.H.L. with the Phantoms. The other is Andrej Meszaros if he can get healthy. Meszaros has the strong background, but has struggled to remain healthy. Until he proves he can stay on the ice, the job belongs to Gustafsson.
One part of Gustafsson’s game I would like to see him improve is his offensive decision making. Sometimes it seems like he hesitates to shoot the puck and would rather make another pass. The confidence to shoot will come in time and having Kimmo Timonen on the roster helps too.
Size is may also raise the skeptics. Gustafsson stands at 5’10” and weighs 180 pounds. Yes his size may be a factor, but Timonen and Gustafsson stand eye to eye and Danny Briere must know someone in the front office because he is not 5’10”.
The Flyers already have a strong youth movement going. Gustafsson could be that next missing piece to reassembling the defensive front.