Philadelphia Flyers: The rapid fall from grace of Erik Gustafsson

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

In the afterglow of the Philadelphia Flyers‘ 6-3 opening night win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, opinions were relatively high on free-agent addition Erik Gustafsson.

Sure, the former Chicago Blackhawk/Calgary Flame didn’t turn in a perfect outing versus the Pens, as he somehow recorded four(!) turnovers in18:02 of debut action, but hey, maybe that was just opening night nerves. The former fourth-round pick finished out the game with two assists, the second-highest mark on the team behind Joel Farabee and Kevin Hayes, and played a pivotal role as the quarterback of the Flyers’ second power-play unit.

With a little extra work and more time on the ice to understand the tendencies of his teammates, surely Gustafsson would settle into a serviceable rhythm, right?

*Ron Howard voice* as it turns out, they weren’t just opening night nerves.

Erik Gustafsson: From Philadelphia Flyers free agency find to healthy scratch.

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Over his seven subsequent outings in an Orange and Black uniform, Erik Gustafsson’s struggles rapidly became the rule, not an anomalous exception.

While the 28-year-old defenseman did happen to score three more points, racking up an assist against the Buffalo Sabers and two in a game against the MacKenzie Blackwood-less New Jersey Devils, he just kept making gaffes with his positioning in both the offensive and defensive zone, all the way remaining a “turnover machine” as some have come to call the Nynashamn, Sweden native.

How bad did things get? Well, we’re talking 10 turnovers in eight games, including a pair against the Islanders that ultimately got him benched outright by Alain Vigneault for the team’s second subsequent contest versus New York – being passed over for the return of Robert Hagg.

Now, in theory, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Gustafsson’s role shrunk versus the Devils, and he played the fewest minutes/shifts of any defenseman not named Sam Morin – if you count him as a defenseman – against the Isles.

With Hagg set to make his return after two games out of the Flyers lineup, someone had to be the odd man out, and ultimately, Gustafsson was that unusual hombre.

Is it permanent? Eh, probably not. The Flyers defense as a whole hasn’t been particularly good in 2020-21, with only four defensemen having positive +/-s through eight games, and there will surely come a day where Vigneault decides to once again shake up his lines. Assuming Morin doesn’t finally figure everything out – which probably won’t happen since he too is a healthy scratch in Game 2 versus the Islanders – Gustafsson will likely be the guy who cycles back in, with the hope that he’ll be able to get things going as a facilitator without costing the team too much in the way of turnovers.

That, my friends, is the duality of Gustafsson: He giveth in the form of assists and even the occasional goal but taketh away with, well, takeaways that can send him to the doghouse.

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When Matt Niskanen surprisingly announced his retirement before the 2020-21 NHL season, it was always going to be a process for the Philadelphia Flyers to replace him. While the team did re-sign Justin Braun to help cushion the blow, many looked at the signing of Erik Gustafsson to a one-year, $1 million deal as a potential low-risk game-changer who could provide some pop on the power play. Instead, the Orange and Black got a player that fans actively want off the ice and cheer on his exclusion when it happens.