How does Flyers' defensive group change with Gustafsson signing?


A native of Sweden, Erik Gustafsson is back in his home country practicing with one of his new teammates Robert Hagg.

The two Swedes work the blue line and will now have an opportunity to do so on the same team after Gustafsson signed a one-year, $3 million contract Monday with the Flyers.

The question is which defenseman will Gustafsson play alongside in 2020-21?

Gustafsson has the makeup of a top-four blueliner with his ability to move the puck, join the rush and create offense. He is a lefty shot but has played on the right side for the past two to three years and said he feels "more confident" on the right side, which is where the Flyers need greater balance after the loss of Matt Niskanen.

With the Blackhawks, the 28-year-old Gustafsson had a breakout 2018-19 campaign in which he scored 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists), the sixth most among all NHL defensemen that season. In 2019-20, he had 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) over 66 games between the Blackhawks and Flames.

While Gustafsson suffered a dip in offensive production, he felt he took positive strides in his defensive play, the area in which he is questioned the most. Gustafsson is skilled, mobile and can quarterback a power play; how is his game in the defensive zone? Will he help the Flyers prevent goals, as well? Oftentimes, good offense is good defense, especially in Alain Vigneault's system.

"The Flyers, it's one of the best teams in the league," Gustafsson said Tuesday in a video interview. "I think the team they have right now is a tough team to play against, they’re playing an offensive type of game and they like the D joining the rush. That’s my type to play the game, too. With all the forwards and defensemen we have, and the goaltending, too, I think this was the best fit for me to be a part of.

"Try to focus on my game and try to be the defensive guy that I am. ... It’s always tough to come into this city and play against them, so it’s fun to be a part of them.”

Gustafsson said his 2019-20 season was not as much of a slump in his eyes.

“I think I played a better game at 5-on-5 and the power play than I did the year before," he said. "It didn’t go point-wise like I wanted. But when I started to play with Duncan Keith two years ago, it was a lot of fun. … He’s one of the best defensemen out there in the league right now and has been that for the past 10 years, too, winning three Stanley Cups. To play with him was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from him. He was talking to me, he could be a little tough on me, but at the same time, I was learning a lot from him.

"I’m an offensive guy, I like to join the rush, play the power play. What I have to learn and be better at is my defensive part of the game. I think I have taken a step from last year, I think I have taken a step even when I played with Calgary and in the playoffs. If I can come in and play like I did the last couple games in the playoffs, it’s going to be a fun season for me and for the team. I’m going to do everything I can to help the team win."

Gustafsson possesses a similar skill set and offensive package to Shayne Gostisbehere, who the Flyers believe has the potential to be a top-four defenseman for them again. However, he might not be poised for such a role with the addition of Gustafsson. Like Gustafsson, Gostisbehere put up a prolific offensive season with 65 points in 2017-18, when he was a top-pair guy alongside Ivan Provorov.

“Well Shayne has been through his career," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said last weekend. "In the '17-18 season, he paired with Provorov and they both had very good seasons by every metric. He’s shown that.

"Obviously his play has slipped a bit with injury and things like that over the last season or two, but Shayne’s only 27. Absolutely he could have an opportunity to have a bigger role on our team next year, as can other players as well. We’ll see how that all shakes out, but we have a pretty good group of defensemen right now coming back next season.”

Hagg and Justin Braun are steady third-pair guys. Gustafsson is set to join one of the club's top-two pairs. Gostisbehere, whose name will continue to float in the trade winds, looks like he is set to compete for playing time and his role. Could Philippe Myers make a big jump to the top pair alongside Provorov? Will Travis Sanheim play with Gustafsson? Who is the odd man out on the blue line? How much will the group miss Niskanen?

There are a lot of questions. When you lose a player the caliber of Niskanen, that is inevitable.

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