Erik Gustafsson was the only external free agent signing of consequence for the Flyers this past off-season. In the upheaval caused by Matt Niskanen’s departure, it appeared that Gustafsson would have a chance to cement himself, and his offensive acumen, somewhere in the ranks of the defense corps. But there were concerns about his play in his own end, which made him seem like a misfit given the Flyers’ needs.
GP: 18 G:1 A 9 PTS: 10 CF%: 47.51%
Gustafsson’s vision and playmaking stand out in the games he has played for the Flyers so far this season. He has creativity offensively and the ability to anticipate where his teammates will hit open ice. He has strong wrists that allow for quick release of crisp and accurate passes into those spaces. His passes are decisive and with purpose.
The combination of these attributes allows Gustafsson to get the puck out of the Flyers’ defensive end and transition quickly to the offense, at times before opposition forechecking can make any impact, or before the defense has time to get into position.
Gustafsson’s vision is a tremendous asset in the offensive zone as well. His vision allows him to get shots through defenders and traffic on the net, unlike many of the Flyers’ defensemen who either have their shots smothered by defenders or shoot off target. Gustafsson’s shooting ability leads to rebound and deflection attempts has been a factor in the massive success JVR has enjoyed this season.
Gustafsson may be the best the Flyers have at getting shots from the point through and on goal.
While Gustafsson’s vision and decisiveness while passing is a clear positive, he has let it become something of a weakness. While retrieving pucks deep in his defensive end Gustafsson seems to have his mind made up on what to do with the puck a few strides before he collects it. This can lead to a quick counter to offense when done well, but if done poorly, as it often has been, it results in a failed clearance and turnover.
He fails to see ice that was once open, is now being covered. Gustafsson needs to take a final glance down the ice before pulling the trigger but fails to do so frequently.
In the rare instances where Gustafsson does restrain himself, he seems to falter. Much like a quarterback who can’t get past his initial read, Gustafsson seems to have no option B at hand on occasions when his first idea is thwarted, and it causes hesitation. When Gustafsson freezes, it allows the opposition to easily expropriate the puck which leads to scoring chances and goals.
While Gustafsson is a much more engaged defender than I expected, it is still a glaring weakness. I can see why Flyers’ General Manager Chuck Fletcher felt his defense was somewhat underrated. Fletcher was wrong, but his thinking makes sense when you watch Gustafsson.
Gustafsson is tantalizingly close to being a decent defender. He is generally engaged and interested. He typically is in the right vicinity defensively. In fact, Gustafsson does about 95% of things correctly but fails in the last 5% consistently.
Be it low urgency to recover a loose puck, or failing to check the stick of his man, Gustafsson seems to consistently come just short of making the sound play. It is like having someone who can almost defuse a bomb working on the bomb squad, it is only a matter of time before something blows up.
To make things worse, the last 5% of Gustafsson’s struggles seem imminently fixable. The Flyers thought that they could fix him, in much the same way we think we can fix that near-perfect dating prospect. But like in the dating world there, is no fixing Gustafsson, he is what he is.
Gustafsson has exceeded my expectations, but my expectations were pretty low. On occasion, he can make spectacular passes to initiate an attack up ice. He has not made a noticeable amount of bad pinches or ill-advised rushes up ice where he failed to get back in position, criticism from his days in Chicago. He is also a willing and interested defender. He is simply trying to make the right play. But being willing does not always translate to being able.
Unfortunately, Gustafsson is just not effective enough playing in his defensive end. He demonstrates a tendency for bad coverage, and bad exits. These problems are consistent and surface nearly every time he is in the lineup. With the frequency of mistakes made by Gustafsson, one has to ask if this was his acquisition was a good fit, and how much he can contribute during the remainder of the season.