It’s not easy getting acclimated to a new team under normal circumstances. But when you add a pandemic-shortened training camp to the equation, well, it’s even more difficult than usual.
Meet Erik Gustafsson, the new Philadelphia Flyers defenseman and a player who is in such a predicament.
Gustafsson, 28, is a four-year NHL veteran who signed a one-year, $3 million contract as a free agent in October. He has to get used to a new system, new teammates, and a new defensive partner, whoever that will be. He could play on any of the three pairings.
“It’s a little difficult,” Gustafsson said after practice Saturday in Voorhees. “At the same time, I’m trying to ask if I have any questions to the coaches and players. I think I’m getting a hold of it pretty quick here. I’m feeling confident right now. It’s all good.”
The 6-foot, 197-pound Gustafsson arrived in the area from Sweden in early December and began informal workouts — about a month before training camp opened — as he tried to blend in with his new teammates. Though left-handed, he is more comfortable on the right side, where he has played over the last three seasons.
Before arriving, he worked out in Sweden with Flyers defenseman and countryman Robert Hagg, and they have been paired together a lot during camp. Gustafsson is the puck-mover, Hagg the stay-at-home defender.
The familiarity with Hagg has helped, Gustafsson said.
“I can speak English, but it’s always easier to speak Swedish,” he said. “He’s been here for a long time, so he knows all the plays we are going to make or calls. He’s been helping me out a lot. He’s a good player. It’s fun to play with him, too. He’s tough. So far, it’s great.”
It is likely Gustafsson will have Hagg as his partner early in the season, but he can play on any defensive pairing. In one scrimmage last week, he was with Ivan Provorov on the No. 1 defensive unit.
Gustafsson spent four seasons with the Blackhawks — at times, he was paired with Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best defenseman — before being traded to Calgary for a third-round draft pick at last year’s trade deadline. In 2018-19, he had a breakout year with Chicago (17 goals, 60 points) before struggling last season at both ends and managing just six goals and 29 points.
Now he’s trying to rebound, and he likes the fact he has the freedom to join the offense.
“I think it’s going to be a huge part of my game, too, to be on the rush and get up in the play,” he said. “Trying to make those easy plays in our own zone, to get up and get the puck to forwards and then follow up. Getting used to it right now. We played it back in the time in Chicago. I like this system we have here.”
Coach Alain Vigneault has been impressed by the player the team calls Gus.
“For the most part, I have liked what I have seen,” Vigneault said. “I do think as he gets more familiar with the way we want to do things, the way we approach our preparation, our expectations — coaches to players — I think the more he understands, the better he is going to play. It is hard for someone coming into a new style of play, a new emphasis on different things, but he seems like a very good young man.”
Gustafsson has been “very receptive to the things I have told him, and Mike Yeo, who runs the D, has told him,” Vigneault said. “He’s picking it up every day, and that is what he needs to do if he is going to be an effective player for us.”
Left winger James van Riemsdyk has faced Gustafsson in NHL games and, now, in training-camp scrimmages.
“He’s super smooth,” van Riemsdyk said. “He moves the puck really well and is just a smart player all around. He’s definitely a guy we’re happy to have on our team. The last couple of days we’ve gotten a chance to do some power-play stuff with him and he is really good up top there, too. That will definitely be a big part of his contribution to the team.”