Bill Meltzer wrote, “According to Derian Hatcher, it’s ‘no contest’ that Erik Gustafsson is the most skilled and polished of the defense prospects who attended the rookie camp earlier in the week.” Do you agree? What is your impression of Erik Gustafsson?
I didn’t get in to town until after the rookie camp, but I’m not surprised that Meltzer thought that. The first word I think of with Gustafsson is poised. When he got to Adirondack last season, he immediately reminded me of Danny Syvret, who he played on the power play with. I don’t mean Gustafsson projects out to be Danny Syvret, but that he was already at that level on his first day. And Syvret is a really good AHL player.
Gustafsson just always seemed to make the right play with the puck. At the AHL level, you see a lot of panic moves from rookies, even guys as highly thought of as Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon. Gustafsson was solid from Day 1. He always had his head up and looked like he had an idea of what to do with the puck before it ever got to him.
Where would you rank him on the Phantoms’ defensive depth chart?
Top three. I think he’s probably ahead of Joonas Lehtivuori, who was the best defenseman here for a good part of the year, among the offensive-defensemen group and about even with Bourdon. I haven’t gotten a chance to see much of Bourdon this year, but everyone says he’s much improved. It’s hard to compare Gustafsson with a guy like Kevin Marshall or the veteran Dan Jancevski because their games are so different. I’ll be curious to see if they pair Gustafsson with another puck-mover like Lehtivuori or Bourdon or if they put him with one of the stay-at-home guys.
Gustafsson quickly racked up seven points in five games for the Phantoms last season. Was he as impressive as his numbers suggest or do they only tell part of the story?
Yes, he was that impressive. He was running the power play almost immediately along with Syvret and it was the best it looked all season. Everyone from the coach on down said things like “he gave us a spark.” Of course, he came at a time when some of the other young defensemen were starting to wear down over the course of the long pro season. Gustafsson clearly still had his legs after the shorter college season and it showed.
He’s played well in the preseason and logged a lot of ice time. Do you think the Flyers might be giving him every chance to make the roster over a guy like Bartulis or Walker?
Well, I answered this after the final cuts and Gustafsson was made a Phantom. I do think he will be among the first callups if the Flyers have any defensive injuries. I’m still surprised the Flyers moved so quickly to lock up Bartulis last year.
Do you think his size could hinder his chances to play in the NHL?
I don’t think it’s a barrier, but let’s see how he looks in March. I thought Lehtivuori, who is even smaller, wore down a bit last year as did all the rookie defensemen. I’ll be specifically watching to see how he handles the physical part of the game.
Assuming he remains on the Phantoms, what do you expect from Gustafsson this season? What role will he play with the team? What does he bring to the table?
Clearly, he brings a lot of offensive skill and will be a top points producer from the blue line. I’ll be keeping more of an eye on him defensively and seeing how he’s progressed in that role and how he handles the physical play. I think the offense is a given. What will separate him from a guy like Syvret over time will be his defensive skills.
It’s surprising that there hasn’t been much hype around Gustafsson, considering how well and how much he has played. Why do you think that is?
This is a little tough for me to answer, because for my audience up in Adirondack, there is a lot of hype around him. He’s a guy I got a lot of questions about over the summer and someone the fans are really looking forward to see. There’s probably less buzz in the Philly area because he wasn’t a draft pick and was signed in relative anonymity, and then he began his career up here at a time when no one was paying much attention to the Phantoms because of their poor record and the fact the Flyers were fighting for a playoff spot. My bet is that after his showing at camp, and if he does what I expect here in Adirondack, that buzz will quickly pick up.
Finally, of the current group of Phantoms defensemen, which one do you predict will end up having the best career?
Bourdon and Gustafsson have the most upside, but Kevin Marshall might be the closest to a sure thing. His game is less complicated and it’s hard not see him have a 10-year NHL career, especially because he brings good leadership attributes. I admit, I’m kind of ducking the question here, but it’s just so early to tell. Get back to me this time next year and I’ll stick my neck out, I promise!