Gus Is On The Rise in Philly
The Flyers have showcased many things this season. Their decision to trade Jeff Carter and Mike Richards turned into an excellent move, the ability to rally around injuries and that an inconsistent presence at defense can cripple even the most offensive-minded teams.
But the one thing that can be said about this season for the Flyers, and most surprisingly, is the the fresh crop of rookies and prospects they boasted in the minors.
No other team in the NHL, this year and even recently, has kept themselves in the top four of their conference while having at least five rookies lacing up their skates on a nightly basis.
Players like Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read and Zac Rinaldo have garnered most of the attention from the national and local media this season. That’s because the first three are high-profile prospects, bound to be top-six forwards by next season while Rinaldo has established himself as an important enforcer.
So that’s why it’s easy for Erik Gustafsson to fall under the radar to Flyers fans. But within the organization, that #26 jersey has been well on their radar since last season.
An offensive-minded defenseman on the smaller side (5'10", 280), Gustafsson's speed and good stick work has earned him multiple call ups with the Flyers stemming back to last season.
This season, Gustafsson was an early-season call up when Chris Pronger first went down in October. But a wrist injury following a tremendous plus-6 effort in 23 minutes of ice time against the Blue Jackets on November 5 knocked Gustafsson a ways down the totem poll.
He restarted his ascent and has found himself back on the Flyers roster, making an argument to stay in Philadelphia for the remainder of the season.
Gustafsson returned to the Adirondack Phantoms line up just before the AHL Outdoor Classic in Philadelphia. He was called up again by the Flyers a week later and has been a regular in the line up ever since.
On the season, Gustafsson is a plus-8 with a goal and two assists. Since his return, he’s logged about 13-14 minutes of ice time a game, getting at least 18 shifts in all but two of the 13 games since his return.
The hard work finally paid off on Thursday when Gustafsson found the back of the net for the first time in his NHL career. Jake Voracek brought the puck into the zone and lured a defenseman onto him. He found a charging Gustafsson, who blasted a one-timer past Sabres goalie Ryan Miller in the third period.
Gustafsson became the seventh Flyers rookie to score his first career NHL goal this season. That is the most for the Flyers since the 1993-94 season when the Flyers had eight rookies to notch their career firsts.
Alongside fellow rookie blue-liner Marc-Andre Bourdon, Gustafsson had been a regular in the Flyers line up. General manager Paul Holmgren recognized this fact, and that’s the reason he went out and got a player like defenseman Nick Grossman on Thursday.
"Those kids have done really well. It is hard to pin this on them,” Holmgren said. “Marc-Andre Bourdon has been tremendous and Erik Gustafsson has been pretty good too, but not as big of a role as Marc-Andre. This has nothing to do with them. We are happy with their progress and development. They have certainly made themselves part of the mix."
Even with the addition of Grossman via trade, Gustafsson could find himself paired with Grossman the rest of the way if the defense can manage to stay healthy.
It all comes down to Gustafsson and Bourdon for the sixth spot when Andrej Meszaros is back healthy. But for now, Gustafsson will continue to make the most of his opportunities and make it known to the Flyers that he is more than just another rookie getting reserve ice time.