Erik Gustafsson welcomes challenge of high-profile position

Erik Gustafsson

If there’s any doubt Flyers’ newly acquired Erik Gustafsson can perform in the bright lights of a top defense pairing role, consider this boldface line on his resume:

One of his recent partners has been two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.

That should assuage possible concerns if Gustafsson happens to be placed in a tandem with rising star Ivan Provorov when hockey resumes sometime around Jan. 1, 2021.

Although Gustafsson — signed to a one-year, $3-million free-agent contract on Monday — is a left-shooting backliner, he’s been playing mostly on the right side over the past few years.

He says he’s comfortable on his “off’’ flank and that could help if Flyers coach Alain Vigneault decides to start him there and fill the vacancy left by the retiring Matt Niskanen.

At 28, Gustafsson has been around long enough to know the ropes on a top pairing. And besides playing with Keith, Gustafsson also had a chance to compete with other stars (forwards) such as three-time Stanley Cup champions Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Two seasons ago, Gustafsson slumped a bit until he was paired with Keith on a somewhat regular basis. Then things started to turn around.

“When I started to play with Duncan Keith, it was a lot of fun,’’ Gustafsson explained during a Tuesday morning media conference call. “He was such a guy to look forward to playing with.

“He’s one of the best defensemen out there in the league right now and he’s been that for the last 10 years, too. He won three Stanley Cups. . .to play with him was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from him. He could be a little rough, tough on me but at the same time I was learning a lot from him.’’

One other scenario with the Flyers might have second-year right-shooting defenseman Philippe Myers moving up from his second pairing unit (with Travis Sanheim) to take on the Niskanen role.

However, Gustafsson has much more experience and could easily move into one of Niskanen’s tasks as a quarterback on the second power-play unit.

Gustafsson actually was leading Chicago in power-play ice time last season (2:49 average per game) prior to his trade deadline move to the Calgary Flames back in February. His proficiency in that role may have led to his decision to sign with the Flyers.

“It did,’’ the 6-foot-0, 197-pound Gustafsson said. “I think the team has good guys who can play on the power play. If I can do my job on the power play, I think I can help the team win. That’s all I’m here to do. It was a big part for sure, because that’s my type of game.’’

His role should be more defined once he talks with management and the coaching staff.

“I’m going to have a conversation with the GM (Chuck Fletcher) very soon but I think they can see me playing on the right side,’’ the Swede said. “I’ve been doing it for the last two or three years.

“Just going to try to focus on my game and see where it goes from there. I’m very excited to join a great team like Philadelphia. It’s always tough to come into this city and play against them so it’s fun to be a part of them.’’

Fletcher was not made available for comment on Tuesday.

Gustafsson was asked what parts of his game need improvement.

“I like to be on the rush, play the power play,’’ he said. “What I have to be better at is my defensive part of the game. I think I’ve taken a step from last year (2018-19, when his numbers slipped). I think if I can play like I did with Calgary in the playoffs it’s going to be a fun season.’’

If he plays on the right side, it shouldn’t be a problem.

“I played a couple games on the left with Calgary (recently) but it didn’t feel right,’’ he said. “So right now I’m used to playing on the right side. I feel more confident on the right side. Whatever the coaches want me to do, I play there.’’

Being friends with fellow Swedish defenseman Robert Hagg of the Flyers should help Gustafsson with the transition to a new team.

In fact, the two are currently practicing together back home in their native country. Gustafsson also is friends with Oskar Lindblom, who is making his way back to full health after a battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

“They’re two very good guys to know,’’ Gustafsson said. “I’m looking forward to playing with them.’’

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About Wayne Fish 2446 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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