Philadelphia Flyers season preview: Erik Gustafsson, the everyday defenseman

USA TODAY Sports

One of the Flyers' only respectable young defenseman, Erik Gustafsson showed some promise down the stretch last season. Can he finally secure -- and excel in -- a full-time lineup spot this year?

Erik Gustafsson

Age: 24 (25 in December)
Depth Chart: Third-pairing defenseman
Contract Status: $1 million per year through 2014, RFA when it expires
2013 Frequent Partners: Bruno Gervais (26.6% of time), Kimmo Timonen (17.1%)

2013 Stats

GP TOI/GP Goals Assists Points
27 20:09 3 5 8
Corsi On Corsi Rel Corsi Rel QoC OZ Start % PDO
-7.8 -0.4 0.349 41.2 994


The bad from 2013

Gustafsson's NHL year started out a bit on the rough side. After starting the year in Adirondack during the lockout, he wasn't able to make the Flyers roster coming out of January training camp. And after being recalled for the first time in February following some blueline injuries/struggles, he hung aroung for a while but ultimately didn't look very impressive in limited minutes and was healthy scratched on occasion before being sent back down to the AHL in mid-March.

The good from 2013

After being recalled again in late March thanks to another huge rash of injuries, Gus was given an expanded role and made the most of it. As one of the team's best (and, well, only) healthy defensemen, Gus responded well to more responsibility, looking more poised in both ends of the ice and scoring six points in 13 games in April while getting time on both special teams units. It seems like he genuinely improved as the year went on, and really showed for the first time that he can be a respectable top-6 option for the team.

His responsibility clearly increased over the course of the season, as his average ice time per game went from 17:14 in February to 19:21 in March to 22:09 in April. That's probably at least in part out of necessity, due to the number of injuries, but the fact that the team was willing to give him those minutes showed that they think they've got something in the young Swede.

Also, while it doesn't have a ton to do with the Flyers, Gus did a superb job in May for Team Sweden in IIHF Championships, playing a team-high 24 minutes per game in ice time while still not being on-ice for a single even strength goal against in 10 games.

What should we expect this season?

Well, technically, we don't quite know where Gus will be to start the year. People (including, in fairness, us) keep talking about a trade of one of the team's current blueliners as if it's a foregone conclusion, and if it does, Gus will probably be in the top-6 for good. But in the event a trade doesn't happen, there will presumably be a competition between Gus and Andrej Meszaros to be the team's sixth defenseman. From the eyes of this observer, Gus has the edge in that battle, thanks in part to Mez's injury troubles and in part to Gus' progress of late.

Barring an injury situation similar to last season's, Gus won't be logging 20 minutes a game -- minutes that typically befall a team's third or fourth defenseman -- again. But he can definitely hold his own on the third pair, and may step in on spot duty for guys on the first and second pairs. He may also be on the second power play unit, depending on how Peter Laviolette decides to lay that group out -- Mark Streit will probably be on that unit, so if Lavvy decides to use two defensemen on that setup, Gus is the best candidate.

I'm not sure where to peg him as far as scoring. I don't think he'll keep scoring quite at the rate he was in April, which was essentially a half-point per game, but I think Gus (a career .62 points per game player in the AHL) has the offensive talent to be above his NHL career mark to date of .22 PPG. The willingness to push the puck up-ice and even carry it deep into the zone himself sometimes seems like it should get him some more chances and goals. So hopefully we'll get a little more out of him on that front -- which is especially likely if he does end up getting PP time.

Best case...

Gus cements his spot in the lineup out of training camp, is more than serviceable on the third pair and the second power play, and can step in for the guys in the top-4 or top PP on occasion and play just fine. He continues to grow this year, and the Flyers actually have a talented young defenseman that they can (hopefully) hang onto for a while at a cheap price.

Worst case...

Gus starts the year as the seventh defenseman, spending time in the press box, and when he makes his appearances thanks to inevitable injuries, he doesn't look like much more than a replacement-level guy and it turns out last year's progress wasn't anything sustainable.

Bottom line

Erik Gustafsson's one of the only young pieces on this blueline that's both currently contributing at the NHL level and that may actually have some upside. We saw some of that come into play last year and the team's happy with his progress. He probably has the inside track for an opening-night lineup spot, and if he continues to show progress while getting good minutes, he'll further help to bolster a third pair that has been a problem on the Flyers for a while.

Other player previews: Couturier Coburn Grossmann Emery Giroux

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