Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is playing his first full pro season with the Phantoms. The transition from college hockey to pro hockey has included certain challenges, but Gustafsson has learned fast and he's also had a very good teacher.
Gustafsson was already close to making his Flyers debut roughly a month ago, when Kimmo Timonen had a slight groin injury.
"I was called up and met the team", Gustafsson recalls. "At the time, most thought that I would play, but then Timonen tested his groin in practice and could play afterall."
"I learned a lot by just being up there with the team and see how everything works. It’s just a good learning experience to sit and watch them play hockey; watch how players like Timonen and Pronger handle things on the ice. You notice how they have a lot of time with the puck in certain situations and other really small things. It’s important to learn to make the right decisions."
"I’m glad that I was called up, but wherever you are, you want to play. I’m not mad or bitter that I didn’t get a chance. You just have to keep working, so the chance will come sooner or later."
Gustafsson has had a two sided debut season on the Phantoms so far. On one hand, he’s been excelling offensively – on the other hand, he’s struggled defensively.
"The problem for me has been to find consistency", Gustafsson analyzes. "Certain games have gone well, some others really bad."
Gustafsson wouldn’t just stare at his glaringly minus marked plus-minus statistic when analyzing his defensive game, but he doesn’t think the number is necessarily that misleading either.
"Of course it’s hard to have a good plus-minus when things have gone the way they have. Nobody on the team has terrific plus-minus numbers, but it’s a bit of both; things have gone bad for the whole team and I’ve had problems with consistency in my own game."
Gustafsson says it hasn’t been easy to adjust to the AHL schedule after college hockey.
"It’s been the biggest challenge. To play many games in a few days, not getting the chance to rest and have many long bus trips between the games."
"You learn to play more simple on the nights when you’re running out of energy. It’s something that I try to keep learning."
Gustafsson is thankful to have ex-Flyers defenseman Kjell Samuelsson around as a mentor.
"He’s a very good teacher and it’s really awesome that he’s also Swedish. He’s good at explaining things and he shows tons of stuff on video that we go through and study. The best thing is that he’s really smart and he’s able to explain everything so well."
Another fellow Swede, goalie Johan Backlund, has been unlucky with injuries, but Gustafsson shares some praise for him, too.
"He missed training camp after that hip surgery he had in the summer. Then he hurt his foot and missed a month because of that. Now he’s back and he’s played really well."
"He’s getting good competition from Michael Leighton. If goaltending was a problem for us in the beginning of the season, it’s certainly not a problem anymore."
Gustafsson says he was a little surprised he was named in the AHL All Star Game.
"It wasn’t something that I was expecting. It was the other coaches in the league who selected me, so it feels like a proof that I’ve done something right."
Gustafsson’s chance with the Flyers didn’t come yet, but the 22 year old remains patient.
"Right now I’m not feeling any hurry to debut in the NHL. I’m going to keep playing a lot here in the AHL and develop defensively that way."
"Then if I get the chance with the Flyers, I’ll be ready."
This report was based off of a Swedish-language story released by Hockeysverige.