Flyers' Gustafsson gets rare ice action

Posted: April 03, 2014

ST. LOUIS - Unlacing his skates in a cubby in the visitors' locker room at Scottrade Center barely large enough to house his mammoth, 6-7 frame, Hal Gill was knocking on wood.

After watching the Flyers' defensemen drop like flies last season - leaving Luke Schenn as the only healthy player to start and finish the abysmal, lockout-shortened year - Gill figured his chances to continue his 1,106-game career were as good in Philadelphia as anywhere else.

"Knock on wood, we've been healthy," Gill said, just missing a crossword puzzle in his stall as he tapped the lumber. "Hopefully, we continue to stay that way."

Gill has played only four games this season. It's been an even more arduous journey for Erik Gustafsson, who finally returned to the Flyers' lineup last night after sitting out the previous 14 games as a healthy scratch.

Last night was just Gustafsson's eighth game since Dec. 21, which is the last time Gill played. That means few Flyers have spent more time around Gustafsson - in the press box, during "bag skates" with other healthy scratches on game days - over the last few months than the always-affable Gill.

Gill, who turns 39 on Sunday and is enjoying one last run with the Flyers in the twilight of his career, has taken on a mentoring role with Gustafsson, a 25-year-old trying to jump-start his own.

"We've spent a lot of time together," Gill said. "It's tough when you're a young kid trying to build a career for yourself. When you're not able to do that, it's a hard situation to handle. I've been in that situation; you want to control your own destiny and you want to be able to play and prove what you can do.

"He's kept a good mind about it. He's been focused and he's worked hard."

Gustafsson is awkwardly stuck in the middle with the Flyers. He's proved to be too good for the AHL, yet hasn't shown enough in 88 NHL games to warrant a spot in the lineup every game. He is signed to a one-way NHL contract for $1 million this season, and the Flyers, always in need of depth, certainly don't want to lose him to the waiver wire.

So, he has spent many nights watching as a serviceable player unable to break through. Gustafsson will be a restricted free agent this summer and it will be interesting to see where the Flyers' brass believes he fits.

This is his first full season in the NHL without being sent down, yet he's played only 28 games, fewer than he did in 2011-12 as a frequent call-up.

"Looking back on the whole year that he's played, he's had some real good games," coach Craig Berube said. "Then there's other games where he wasn't so good or he didn't move the puck as well. Our 'D' has been pretty healthy. A lot of times, he was just an odd-man out."

For most of the season until the trade deadline, Gustafsson was regularly switched out with Andrej Meszaros as the Flyers' sixth defenseman. Then, the Flyers traded for Andrew MacDonald on March 2 and removed any glimmer of hope for another shot with the exception of injury.

The in-and-out nature of the season has wreaked havoc on Gustafsson's confidence, he acknowledged earlier this season. That is where Gill has come in.

"Once it's game time, you have to be able to shut that out and just go play, especially in this league when the media is on you, the coaches are on you," Gill said. "Take all the coaching, all the direction and go play. He's done that. When he has played, he's been in the rush, he's been skating and he's been up in the play."

Kimmo Timonen (upper-body injury) likely will be back this week; Berube said Timonen probably could have played last night if it were a playoff game. Berbue will push Gustafsson back to the press box, for now, with Gill, but that might not be such a bad thing.

"I don't think I'm looking for anything more than what he is capable of doing," Berube said. "Confidence comes from playing. I think a lot of times, confidence comes from knowing that you're in every night. It's hard - I played, I know. It's not easy, but he has to deal with that. It's part of being a good pro."

There is no better teacher in that department than Gill.

Giroux honored

After leading the NHL in scoring since early December, Claude Giroux finally was honored by the league for the first time this season as their Third Star of the Month of March.

Giroux paced all players in scoring with 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) in March. He helped the Flyers to a 9-3-2 record, tying with November for their best calendar month of the season.

Boston's Jarome Iginla (13 goals) and Detroit's Gustav Nyquist (18 points) were the NHL's first and second stars.

"His work ethic is really high, and that's what makes it all go for him - his hard work and competitiveness, along with his skill," Berube said of Giroux. "He doesn't try to play a skill game as much as he works. When you have a skill guy that works like that, they're dangerous players."

Only Ilya Bryzgalov (March 2012) and Jeff Carter (December 2008) have been previously selected as one of the league's three stars of the month.

On Twitter: @DNFlyers


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