Friday, May 16, 2014

Turnabout is fair play as Gustafsson departs for Mother Russia

In the end, all Erik Gustafsson did was exactly what the Philadelphia Flyers had done to him: left them out of the decision-making process for the next phase of his career.

Gustafsson himself confirmed to Flyers GM Ron Hextall on Friday afternoon that the 25-year-old defenseman has signed a contract with Avangard Omsk for the 2014-15 season. Thus, the Gus Bus pulled out of one station and will land in another literally half the world away, 5,617 miles distant.

"I spoke with Erik today and he informed me that he does in fact, have a deal in place to play overseas. Although we are disappointed in his decision, we wish him all the best," said Hextall. 

That doesn't exactly sound like a front-office mover too upset to see the young man go, so maybe Gustafsson won't shed a tear on his way out.

A restricted free agent in July who made $1,000,000 this season to sit out 51 regular-season games, Gustafsson had been rumored to be heading to the Kontinental Hockey League according to reports out of Russia earlier in the day.

Per a team insider, the Flyers are still expected to make a qualifying offer by June 30 anyway, in order to retain his rights until his European contract expires. Once the offer is made, the club has him in the fold until 2016, at which time he'll be an unrestricted free agent.

By quick calculations, the Swedish puck-mover, never more than a spare defenseman under both Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube, made approximately $32.258.06 per appearance this past season, and a whopping $100,000 per point (10). The final count of his Philadelphia tenure: 91 contests, six goals, 17 assists and a plus-14 rating. 

Having apparently replaced the late and not-so-lamented Michael Leighton as the organizational yo-yo, Gustafsson appeared sparingly over parts of four seasons with the franchise, and also took part in nine postseason contests -- the majority of which came two seasons ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins where his effortless stride and ability to see passing lanes made the Flyers' offense click against an opponent which wanted to play an up-tempo style.

He continued to demonstrate those qualities for the remainder of his time here, particularly in the final games of the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, but it apparently made no difference, if you believe the following "off-the-record" report from several scouts who talked to HockeyBuzz' Flyers reporter:

"Wrote one scout via email, ' I think Gus is a number 7 dman on most NHL teams. I like his try and he has some offense, but a lack of size and average skills will limit his upside. As long as his salary remains on the low side, he is an asset. He is replaceable if he wants too much money for me.'

The second scout also felt that Gustafsson was no more than a 'serviceable seventh defenseman' in the NHL. The other thought he could still improve enough to hold down a number six spot but "he is not there yet.'"

The National Hockey League is no longer the premier location in which to show off one's skills. Failing to crack a lineup in North America, a player now has multiple options at his disposal across the Atlantic, which offer more playing time and a shorter schedule for pay commensurate with what was given in the NHL.

That goes double for European-bred players, where the effort to come over to the AHL and NHL can be taxing from the standpoint of both hockey and social culture, and who have the luxury of returning to their country of origin to complete their playing days. Why should Gustafsson, or anyone else submarined by scouting reports, be cowed by it when opportunity knocks somewhere else? Scouts, for all the intensive traveling and analysis they undertake, can be wrong.

Thomas Eriksson, a native Swede who played here for parts of six seasons, returned to his country early in the 1981-82 season, as Jay Greenberg related in Full Spectrum, suspecting "European bias" from then head coach Pat Quinn. He eventually was persuaded to return in 1983 when Bob McCammon was at the helm, but his career was ended due to knee issues in 1986. Mike Keenan infamously said of Eriksson, who did much to help the Lindbergh family through the tragedy of Pelle's death in the Fall of 1985: "Thomas was a good person. I'm just not sure he wanted to be a good hockey player."

Due to increasing globalization of the sport, I can't imagine any such words will flash across the gray matter or pass the lips of anyone in the Flyers' front office even if they held Gustafsson in such low regard as a player. Still, it's hard not to think some kind of bias creeped into their handling of the young man.

Best case scenario, Gustafsson uses his time in Eurasia to his benefit, with each shift intending to show the Flyers brass how wrong they were, and he decides to come back as the club holds his rights, determined to demonstrate ability of a top-four blueliner. Middle case, he does the same but spurns the Flyers for another team willing to take a "chance" on bringing him back. Worst case, the NHL never sees Gustafsson again, and we endure another merry-go-round of accusations that the organizational philosophy failed once again with a prospect on the verge.

Gustafsson's longest continuous streak in the lineup this past season was nine games, from November 9-27. Some might say that coincides with Claude Giroux's awakening and the rest of the club followed. But he then sat for 16 in a row from late December through late January, and rode the pine for 14 straight after the Olympic break before a perfunctory three-game audition at the end of the year. What exactly was Holmgren, Hextall and Berube looking for? More points? More physicality? More...height and weight? You can't teach height and you can't teach those skills in which he's invested a partial NHL career.

It's intriguing to note that, while Hextall made a big show about using stats and analytics at his introductory press conference last week, his first major non-act as a GM was to kiss Gustafsson goodbye.

For all intents and purposes, the "Free Gus" movement stemmed from the fact that advanced stats demonstrated his value to overall game flow, offensive-zone push and puck possession. This would have been a fine test-case for Hextall's new philosophy going forward. Instead, it appears on first glance that the traditional whisper-down-the-lane of scouting persuaded the higher-ups that Gustafsson wasn't going to make an impact at present.

Farewell, young man. We hardly knew you, though those who exist in a higher pay grade apparently knew you enough to hedge their bets. Dos vidanya, and knock 'em dead over there.

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