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September 18, 2013 | 8:57pm ET
Gustafsson looks to prove he belongs
By David Strehle,

PHILADELPHIA, PA -- The past seven months have brought a tremendous turnaround in the career projection for Philadelphia Flyers' defenseman Erik Gustafsson.

Having played in parts of the last three years with the organization, the 24-year-old RFA inked a new one-year deal and came to training camp with a full head of steam.

That should definitely be the case.

After all, he was among the defenders that logged the largest amount of ice time per game down the stretch on a bruised and battered blue line in last year's abbreviated campaign, where he contributed three goals, six points and a +7 in the final 13 games. He then played an integral part in Sweden's gold medal victory in the World Championships.

But being honest, he wasn't exactly sure what to expect when he reported for duty with Team Sweden.

"I came in and didn't really know what they expected of me," Gustafsson said after he came off the ice after the second session of Saturday's training camp.

But he was pleasantly surprised with how things eventually turned out.

"They gave me a lot of responsibility, and I felt like I played really well," he said. "We won it, which was great, and I felt really good. It made me realize I can play with the best."

That's great news for the Flyers, who have been in need of help on the blue line since the end of Chris Pronger's playing days and the loss of Matt Carle last summer.

When asked if he feels now he belongs with the big club whereas he may not have previously, Gustafsson was extremely confident.

"Yeah, I think so now," he beamed. "I think I can be a big impact and help the team win games."

Though he sometimes showed flashes of becoming a reliable puck-moving defenseman in his previous stints with the club, certainty has oftentimes been an issue for Gustafsson. Following a fourth consecutive contest finishing on the minus side of the ledger, he was sent back to the Adirondack Phantoms to work on his shaky confidence.

But he believes he's better mentally prepared, and he thinks he understands he may have been giving the competition too much credit.

"I really think the biggest part for me has been the mental aspect," Gustafsson explained. "I think (last year) I came in with a little too much respect for the players. I said to myself on my last call-up last year to put all that aside and just play hockey. I think from that point on it's just been a climb upwards for me. Iím playing better and better and finished it all with a gold at the Worlds, so thatís been a huge aspect. And with that, I can just play more relaxed out there and keep making plays like I did in the American League.Ē

While he has taken some important steps forward, Gustafsson believes there are some veteran presences on the roster, which includes a newcomer to the lineup, that can also help him further develop his overall game.

"Kimmoís (Timonen) really been great to me ever since I came to the organization," he said. "I talked to Mark (Streit) the first few days of camp, heís a really good guy. He gave me a few pointers that will help me."

When Gustafsson describes the defender he most likely sees himself eventually becoming, two of the three players he mentioned are not far from home.

"Iíve been watching him (Streit), Kimmo and actually Tobias Enstrom of Winnipeg," he said. "Thatís the type of player I want to be. I really try to see what they do and how they solve tricky situations out there, and what kind of plays they make when they have the puck."

With nine NHL defensemen in camp on one-way contracts and Hal Gill on a PTO, he knows he's still got a lot to prove. And he realizes all he can worry about is what he, himself, can control.

"There's a lot of competition," Gustafsson admitted regarding camp. "I try not to think about what the roster's going to be like, I just try to focus on my part and from my side of view I really think I belong. I'm going to try to do my best and show I deserve some regular minutes out there."

Peter Laviolette echoed those sentiments, saying the young blue liner has had a great last half of the calendar year.

"Most certainly he played well for us down the stretch, he really opened some eyes," the coach said. "Then he went to the World Championships and was a top defender for them. He took on the most minutes and they ended up winning the gold medal."

But Laviolette also noted Gustafsson will have a lot of competition for not only making the Flyers' roster, but also where he will eventually fit into the game plan of the defensive end.

"I think it's important that Gus does his best to jump right back in where he left off where he ended the season, which was a really positive note," the head coach said. "It goes back to the original question about the goaltending or naming a forward that might be trying to make an impression here. We need to push from within, and I think we can do that this year. We seem to have good depth at all positions right now, and there's a good battle going on in the defensive corps to make this team. To push yourself up the lineup to receive the minutes that he got at the end of last year where he impressed us so much."

And that's really all Gustafsson can ask for, to play to the best of his ability and show the last seven months aren't a fluke, that this is his real projection for an organization in need of help on the blue line.

"I hope I put myself in that position that they want to bring me up because they see I have something to contribute to the team," Gustafsson said. "I feel, especially the second half of last year and the Worlds, I really stepped up my game and played really well. It boosted my confidence, and I think I had a pretty good start to the camp this year. Itís going to be exciting to play a few games and really show I can pick up where I left off last year."

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.

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