To say the Flyers have a very poor history of raising defenseman through their system is an understatement.
Here’s a list of defenseman whom the Flyers have acquired before their 23rd birthday that played at least 200 games (first stint only) for the team: Braydon Coburn, Joni Pitkanen, Chris Therien and Randy Jones.
Of those four, only two can today be described as quality, top-four defensemen.
Pitkanen, whose career started out with a bang, flamed out in his final season in Philadelphia and has been unable to live up to his terrific potential. The same could be said for Coburn, who seems unlikely to ever match his career high of nine goals and 37 points set in 2008 (he has 14 goals and 66 points in the three-plus seasons since).
The best defenseman the Flyers have had in the last 20 years (Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Kim Johnsson) all were brought in from other organizations.
So, when I say Erik Gustafsson looks like he could be the best homegrown defenseman since the days of Jimmy Watson, temper any expectations or general overreactions by reading the above section again. Star players who go undrafted through college come around once in a Martin St. Louis, but a Brian Rafalski situation could be well within reach for the young Swede.
A product of the Flyers rookie free agent binge of 2010, Gustafsson was pretty much the lone bright spot for the Phantoms last year, averaging nearly a point per game over the first 20 or so contests for a last-place team and finishing with a highly respectable 49 points in 72 games. The year before, coming off a 32-point college season (in 39 games), he posted a tantalizing seven points in just five games for the Phantoms.
While he has only a lone assist to show for his first five games with the Flyers this year, his plus-six plus/minus rating gives a little better illustration of his strong play so far this year. Despite forming a small-man tandem with the “six-foot” (yeah, in the way Allen Iverson is 6'1") Matt Carle, and being classified as an offensive defenseman, Gustafsson has logged solid defensive minutes for the team without being physically exposed. During his very strong game against the Devils, he showed this with an excellent neutral zone pokecheck on uber-talented Ilya Kovalchuk as the Russian sniper tried to toe-drag around him.
Has Gustafsson earned a roster spot once Chris Pronger returns to the lineup?
In playing these solid minutes, Gustafsson seems to have earned coach Peter Laviolette’s trust. The coach not only has played Gustafsson more than veteran Andreas Lilja in each game that Gustafsson’s dressed, but he’s given the kid increasing amounts of overall ice time, including power-play time (1:35 against Carolina, 2:26 against Buffalo, 3:30 against New Jersey).
Leading up to his team-high 23:00 minutes against Columbus, Gustafsson had seen his ice time rise from 16:13 against Winnipeg to 18:57 against New Jersey. In that game, only Timonen (33) and Matt Carle (31) played more shifts than Gustafsson’s 30, including three in the final 10 minutes of regulation and three in overtime (totaling 2:01).
In fact, Laviolette seems to have made Gustafsson one of his go-to four-on-four players. Immediately following the Carle penalty that erased a Flyer power play, Laviolette sent out Gustafsson as one of his four players. The result? Gustafsson rewards his coach by making a smart pinch a slick pass to an uncovered James van Riemsdyk to open the scoring of what would become a rout.
Now, there’s no guarantee Gustafsson won’t be another Pitkanen (who led all rookies in plus/minus during his first year). However, Gustafsson faces a much different situation then Pitkanen. Pitkanen was forced to become the Flyers’ top defenseman in his second season due to injuries to Johnsson and Desjardins. Gustafsson will have at least two years of Pronger and, most importantly, Timonen.
Why is Timonen so important? Well, just over four years ago, Timonen played two seasons with a couple young defensemen in Nashville. In 2010, both of those players competed in the gold medal game in Vancouver.
Am I bold enough to predict that Erik Gustafsson will be an Olympian in 2014? No. But do I think that he’ll be a top-four-caliber NHL defenseman? And better than Randy Jones? Absolutely. And that wouldn’t be too shabby for a little kid from Sweden via Northern Michigan.