Why Loui Eriksson Will Be the Boston Bruins' Biggest X-Factor in 2014-15

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Why Loui Eriksson Will Be the Boston Bruins' Biggest X-Factor in 2014-15
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Right wing Loui Eriksson no longer has Jarome Iginla to distract the Boston Bruins fanbase from his struggles. Rather, he is in a position to replace Iginla, now with the Colorado Avalanche, on Boston’s depth chart.

Granted, that position may fall unto him by default with Boston’s modicum of quality and quantity on the right side. But he can earn it by improving upon his first season with the Bruins.

Regardless, whether he flanks the first, second or third center, he needs to replenish his pre-July 2013 trade form. That is, unfettered by the remnants of injury and raring to polish off his share of scoring chances in accordance with his minutes.

Assuming he permanently plugs the first-line vacancy, he needs to bring his April 5, 2014 form. That was when Eriksson filled in for an ailing Iginla and saturated the scoresheet with temporary linemates David Krejci and Milan Lucic.

Naturally, that need not entail a playmaker hat trick and an additional assist in every game. After all, Boston will be banking on Eriksson boosting his goal total back to the upper 20s over 2014-15.

But his energy, compete level and cognizance should at least yield regular observations like this one from The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa on the April afternoon in question:

Against the Flyers, Eriksson submitted his best game yet. He skated furiously in all three zones. He was strong on the puck. He was creative in looking for his linemates. He laid claim to the net-front real estate. ... He’s skating well. He wields an active, well-positioned stick. He can play on any line. He’s the net-front man on the No. 2 power-play unit.

The searing question for the coming campaign: Is the former Dallas Stars beacon ready to play on another team’s top line full time? Do those traces of chemistry with Krejci and Lucic signify a supply with a shelf life of 82 games plus the postseason?

Given the limitations that come with the salary cap, the Bruins will need nothing less out of Eriksson. CapGeek lists them as $809,143 above the ceiling, and they still have yet to re-sign restricted free agent Reilly Smith.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Beyond Eriksson and Smith, who turned heads en route to a second-line settlement in 2013-14, Boston is lacking in proven quality on the right wing. The rest of the naturals on its depth chart, per The Hockey News, are Matt Fraser, Jordan Caron, Bobby Robins and six rookies.

Barring a breakout that trumps the surprise of Smith’s 20-goal, 51-point season, none of those nine will suffice beyond a depth role. The same would hold true for any ripe or unripe convert from the center or the left side.

Furthermore, the Bruins will most likely need to place Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve to afford Smith’s continued services. Only a salary-shedding trade would permit them to acquire a new face to replace Iginla.

Given these circumstances, it is safe to assume that Eriksson’s third-line alliance with fellow countryman Carl Soderberg shall discontinue for 2014-15. Higher-ups will instead ask him to start over on his original top-six purpose, as was the consensus after the deal with Dallas.

Head coach Claude Julien hinted at that potential arrangement less than two weeks ago, telling Jimmy Toscano of CSNNE.com, “We’ve lost Jarome, but as you’ve probably heard I think Loui Eriksson is a player that can be even better than he was last year. I think we started seeing that at the end of the year. And he can be a replacement for Jarome as a possibility.”

With access to other reliable options in doubt at best, consistent health and continued acclimation on Eriksson’s part will be imperative components to Boston’s biome.

Repeat concussions doubtlessly hindered Eriksson’s transition to his new employer in 2013-14. His second injury, which occurred on Dec. 5, came in the middle of a season-worst 11-game goal-less skid.

Even after recovering and returning to action with no additional multigame injury stints, he was an incomplete version of himself.

THN’s scouting report acclaims Eriksson for his “tremendous offensive instincts and a goal-scorer’s touch” and adds that he “is also good as a playmaker, thanks to excellent stickhandling ability.” But only one of those qualities translated to sound results for the balance of the past season.

Eriksson needed 43 appearances to double his initial 18-game goal total from five to 10, his final 61-game output for the 2013-14 regular season. Although, from late January through the end of Boston’s playoff run, he only once went four consecutive games without an assist.

If he is to kick ice chips over the Iginla void, he will need to bring a better-rounded offensive package.

Before their strike force went numb against Montreal in the playoffs, the Bruins were the NHL’s third-most prolific squad. Their nightly average of 3.15 goals per game complemented a stingy defense (2.08 goals against) to help them claim the Presidents Trophy.

The top of that balanced brigade? Iginla, he of 30 goals to tie Patrice Bergeron for the team lead and 61 points for third among his allies.

Just as Iginla impelled Bruins followers to shelve their visions of Nathan Horton, Eriksson will need to do likewise in 2014-15. He certainly has the right proficiencies and propensities to do so.

Hovering around the 20-minute range in nightly ice time for five years on a Western Conference team says the 29-year-old should have plenty of stamina to tap into. Continuously finishing among the top three on Dallas’ chart in every key category proves he is capable of earning his minutes.

In addition, the net-front presence that the aforementioned Shinzawa alluded to parented many of Iginla’s tallies, particularly in the playoffs. More of that, when necessary, will go a long way toward verifying Eriksson’s adaptation.

But as the Bruins collectively learned in the second round, you can only subsist so much on gritty goals. That is where the likes of Eriksson will need to come in with the purer flair that gave him 25-plus markers on an annual basis in Dallas.

To enable that potentiality, he will need to ensure that the worst of his injury history is behind him. The next prerequisite is to sustain the mutual know-how he demonstrated with the two first-line holdovers on April 5.

Anything short of that will chisel a sizable question mark into the host’s attacking zone at TD Garden. Eriksson’s right-side handiness and veteran stripes dwarf those of Boston’s other readily conceivable options.

The 23-year-old Smith could by all means make more strides in his second full-length NHL season. But forming a stable top-six twosome on the right wing with Eriksson is crucial to averting excess experimentation.

Without Eriksson or an equivalent first-liner from the trade or free-agent market, the Bruins would need to elevate raw homegrown specimens. That would entail a baptismal fire through more minutes and/or abandoning one’s natural side. (Just because the left-shooting Eriksson has mastered his off-wing does not mean Ryan Spooner or Alexander Khokhlachev will.)

Based on track-record discrepancies and the resultant senses of purpose for 2014-15, whether Boston’s collective right wing flaps or flops could rest on one player. Iginla’s departure incurred a downgrade among that sector of the strike force, but a vintage Eriksson can be an upgrade.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.

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