Over the last few years, the core of the Islanders defense has remained intact including Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield. But because of salary cap issues, the Islanders had to trade Devon Toews to the Colorado Avalanche following the 2019-20 run to the Eastern Conference Final and then they shipped Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings following last season’s trip to the Stanley Cup Semifinals. The Islanders also brought back veteran Andy Greene and they signed future hall of famer Zdeno Chara to a one-year deal as he returns to the team that drafted him in 1996.
But another transaction to keep an eye on is the signing of NHL veteran defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a PTO (Professional Tryout). The 29-year-old recorded a 60-point season for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018-19, but has not been able to recapture that output during the last two campaigns. He played last season for the Philadelphia Flyers recording a goal and 9 assists for 10 points in 24 games. In 2019-20, he played for both Chicago and the Calgary Flames and finished with 6 goals and 23 assists for 29 points in 66 games.
For Gustafsson, an opportunity to resurrect his career with a team like the Islanders was exactly what he was looking for.
“I’m happy to be here,” said Gustafsson in a Zoom meeting with reports on Wednesday. “It’s a great organization and a great team. That’s why I wanted to come here. I know it’s a PTO but I have to show that I belong here and I can fit in this team. When I signed the PTO, I felt like it was the right fit for me.”
Erik Gustafsson on New York Islanders Zoom Meeting with reporters
The 6-2 195-pound native of Nynashamn, Sweden has played a total of 250 National Hockey League games and he brings with him a left-handed shot and an offensive skillset. But in order to earn a contract with the Islanders, he’s going to have show the coaching staff that there’s more to his game than just offense.
“As we’re getting to know him a little more, we’ll see the next level of things,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “Like the intangibles, work ethic, the defensive part, the reads on both sides of the puck. He’s coming in here with a really strong skill base, he’s put up points and has been productive in the National Hockey League, has experience and we’re just trying to build a book on him right now.”
Gustafsson dished out two assists and was a +2 in the Islanders’ pre-season opener on Sunday, a 4-0 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He’s been getting up to speed and learning the Islanders’ system during the training camp practices and so far, he seems to be fitting in well as he works towards earning a spot on the Isles’ opening night roster.
“I feel like I started a little slow in the practicing but after the game I felt pretty good,” said Gustafsson. “It was a good game for me and we’ll see what happens. I’m just trying to do my best out there. The other defensemen have been so welcoming for me and they’ve been awesome ever since I came in here.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the last two regular seasons, the 2021-22 campaign will be the NHL’s first 82 game regular season since 2018-19. The Islanders are certainly going to need some depth on a blueline that has some age on it with soon to be 39-year-old Andy Greene with the 43-year-old Chara. There are other players in camp vying for those defensive roster spots including Robin Salo, Thomas Hickey, Sebastian Aho, Grant Hutton and Samuel Bolduc. For Gustafsson to make the team, he’ll have to put some distance between himself and the others.
Offensively, there’s no question that he could be an asset to an Islanders team that is expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, but can he help out on the other end?
“If there’s any question marks, it might be in the areas of maybe some of the defensive situations,” said Trotz. “He passes the puck tremendously well. I don’t have enough data on him. One game is not going to do it for me. I will need a few games to give you a real strong assessment but his strengths are in all of those skill-based areas passing, skating and shooting.”
Gustafsson did not play in Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Flyers in Philadelphia, but he could be back in the lineup on Saturday when the Islanders face the New Jersey Devils in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It will be another chance for him to show that he’s capable of being the type of player that he was for the Blackhawks a few seasons ago.
The question is…can he?
“I’m very confident,” said Gustafsson. “I know it’s been up and down the last two years but I think I’m still that d-man. That’s why I came here. If I can make the team here, I see that this team is going to help me to come back to that point.”
If there was ever a coaching staff that could help Erik Gustafsson find his game again, it’s on Long Island with Barry Trotz and his assistants. Gustafsson also has a talented group of defensemen that he is working with and learning from but now the rest is up to him. For the Islanders, his signing to a PTO was a no-risk transaction but if Gustafsson makes the team, it’s an addition that could pay dividends down the road