Erik Gustafsson making an impact for New York Rangers
This past off-season, in a quick flurry of activity, New York Rangers general manager Chris Drury signed a number of free agents to the team on either one-way or two-way contracts. One of those signings was defenseman Erik Gustafsson.
The 31 year-old veteran had been with the Washington Capitals last season while Peter Laviolette was head coach there, and it was rumored that the now Rangers head coach recommended Gustafsson be signed by the Rangers once he, himself, had been hired. The veteran defenseman is known to play an impactful two-way game, going hard on defense — but also keeping the puck in the offensive zone for his teammates and not being afraid to shoot or create chances at the net.
How Erik Gustafsson is helping the Rangers defensively
In 61 games last season with the Capitals, Gustafsson achieved an overall plus/minus rating of +9. Having been trained in the Laviolette system at the time, Gustafsson is aware of the system’s focus on the blue line even while his team is in the offensive zone; and this includes being conscious of preventing a rush not just by controlling the neutral zone, but by holding off the opposing team from getting behind the defense on a clear path to the net.
“For me, it’s a little advantage,” Gustafsson said of his familiarity with Laviolette. “I remember last year when I came into Washington, I was nervous with a new system. Coming in this year, I feel more confident. I think it shows in my game out there, too. I can focus on the practice more. I feel confident and I think it’s helped that I played with him last year.”
In the initial three games the veteran Swede has played with the Blueshirts, his plus/minus is +4, with three blocked shots and one hit and an average ice time of 17:44. He’s also registered one goal and one assist to date. While his numbers are good, he won’t be supplanting any of the current Rangers top-four defensemen, but can certainly fill in if needed.
So far, Gustafsson has shown he’s not afraid to back check, using his speed getting into the defensive zone to protect his own team’s net, while focusing on holding the line so the opposing team is deterred from even trying to score.
What Gustafsson does offensively for the Blueshirts
Gustafsson is most well known for keeping the puck in the offensive zone and his ability to create chances for the forwards to score, as well as scoring himself.
Last season with the Capitals, Gustafsson scored seven goals and had 31 assists. Over eight NHL seasons and 382 games, the defenseman has scored 40 goals and had 153 assists. That’s a career average of .5 points per game, which certainly qualifies him as a two-way type player.
“He’s a skater, a puck-mover, he’s constantly looking to jump and create,” said Laviolette of the veteran player. “He’s looked real comfortable.”
Traded at the deadline last season to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Gustafsson scored a goal in one of the two playoff games in which he participated for the Leafs. In the first week of the current season, the Swedish veteran has already scored once and provided an assist with six shots on goal for the Rangers.
Gustafsson’s potential to mentor Braden Schneider
Braden Schneider has been paired over the last couple of years with multiple partners, ranging from Libor Hajek to Zac Jones to Ben Harpur to Niko Mikkola, and a stray shift here or there with one of the Rangers’ top two left-shooting defensemen, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller. Needless to say, not the most stable situation for a young player in which to thrive.
For his career (127 games played to date), even on the bottom pair, the young defenseman has an plus/minus rating of +12. Over the initial three games of this season, however, Schneider’s game score is -2. Contributing to that number, however, is one game at Columbus in which Ryan Lindgren didn’t play due to injury — and Schneider was paired with seventh defenseman Zac Jones.
The pair didn’t have the strongest game, and were on the ice for multiple goals scored that night; and a mistake by Schneider in Monday’s night’s home opener against the Arizona Coyotes ultimately led to a penalty shot that was saved by goalie Igor Shesterkin.
One important way in which Erik Gustafsson can contribute to the Blueshirts this season is by mentoring his regular partner, the most junior regular defenseman. Some of Schneider’s weaknesses that have surfaced early are probably just because it’s still early; but what could turn out to be a stable year of mostly playing with one veteran all season could positively impact the younger player’s game.
“[Gustafsson’s] always talking,” Schneider said during training camp. “I’ve had tons of questions with the systems and the coaching change that we’ve had since he’s played with [Laviolette]. He’s been helping me this whole camp. He’s the new guy, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot more.”
Not a bad way to make the team better for a much traveled, experienced, two-way defenseman.