May 10, 2014

Versatile, hungry Eriksson emerges as Bruins' X-factor

By Andrew Merritt


Loui Eriksson's Boston Bruins career got off to a slow start, largely due to injuries. But the Gothenburg, Sweden, native - who topped the 70-point mark in three straight seasons with Dallas - rounded into form in time for the playoffs, providing versatility and two-way contributions. (All photos by Getty Images)
 

The last time Loui Eriksson had played in a playoff game, he was 22 years old, the Thrashers were still in Atlanta, and the Boston Bruins were working on 35 years of futility.

A lot has changed.

Eriksson, who had been a Dallas Star from the day he was drafted in 2003, was meant to be the marquee piece coming to Boston from Texas in exchange for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and prospect Ryan Button on the Fourth of July, 2013. The biggest Bruins trade since Joe Thornton went to San Jose also included Reilly Smith, Joe Morrow and Matt Fraser, but Eriksson was expected to most directly replace the mercurial Seguin.

The Gothenburg, Sweden, native came with a pedigree, even if his Western Conference exploits weren’t as well-known to Boston fans. Through his first seven years as a pro, he averaged 0.81 points per game and topped the 70-point mark in three straight seasons (2009-12). He led the Stars in scoring in 2011-12 with 26 goals and 45 assists.

At the time, the trade that sent the promising — if polarizing — Seguin off to Dallas made sense only because the Bruins were getting a high-impact scorer back. Smith, Morrow and Fraser had some upside, but Eriksson was the reason Bruins fans could swallow the loss of Seguin.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Eriksson was felled twice by concussions in his debut season with the Bruins, first missing five games after a hit by Buffalo’s John Scott on Oct. 23, and then a more troubling stretch of 15 games after Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik hit him on Dec. 7.

The Orpik hit knocked Eriksson out of the lineup for just over a month, and it was a real question whether he’d be able to be anywhere near as effective as the Bruins had hoped when they brought him to Boston last summer.

It raised a lot of questions and cast a lot of doubt on whether the Seguin trade was a good idea in the first place — especially as Seguin had a breakout year with the Stars, leading the team with 37 goals and 84 points in the regular season.

“You know, the criticism — I can understand the criticism,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said in April. “When we make a trade, we look to see how we improve our team, and we went into that whole venture to improve our team, and we have improved our team.

“And there’s no secret to the quality of player that we traded,” Chiarelli said. “It was not a surprise that he’s doing what he’s doing. On our side of the ledger, it’s about improving our team, and we thought we did.”

Fortunately for Chiarelli and the Bruins, Smith has been a huge unexpected gain from the trade, slotting in nicely with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to become one of the team’s most reliable forwards. But Smith wasn’t supposed to be the big name in the Seguin trade, and it took a while for Eriksson to live up to the hype.

Some of that, certainly, was due to the concussions. But in the 24 games before he suffered his second concussion, Eriksson had just five goals and nine assists. Then he missed a month, and collected a handful of points before the Olympic break.

It seems it took a trip to Sochi for Eriksson to find some comfort in Boston. In the final 22 games of the regular season after the Olympics — in which Eriksson had two goals and an assist to help Sweden to the silver medal — he scored four goals and 13 assists, including a four-assist game against Philadelphia on April 5.

Perhaps more importantly, he has had stints on three different lines, becoming something of a utility player for the Bruins down the stretch. Though he has settled in as the right wing on the third line with fellow Swede Carl Soderberg and Chris Kelly, Eriksson also played significant minutes early in the season on the second line with Bergeron and Marchand. He even has taken shifts here and there with the top line alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic, and played with them for his big game against Philadelphia on April 5 as Jarome Iginla sat out with a minor injury.

 “I think his game’s grown just before the Olympic break and the way he played in the Olympics, and coming back he’s been playing really, really well for us and he’s being the player that I guess everyone expected him to be,” Lucic said. “He’s a very smart hockey player. He’s in the right position a lot of the times. He’s got a good stick. And that’s what makes him an easy player to play with.”

The evolution of Eriksson’s season has not been a straight line. He started with Bergeron and Marchand, and it seemed reasonable to expect that he’d produce at a rate befitting his role on that line. But a slow start and the two concussions changed his direction, and it was only after Sochi that he really started to find a niche — even if it is as the team’s go-to utility forward instead of an exclusive first- or second-liner.

Though his numbers are those of a third-liner, Eriksson’s ability to jump up with the team’s top two lines has been an asset.

“He’s such a smart player — he adapts to any line he’s with, and he’s been a great asset to that third line with Carl Soderberg and Kelly,” coach Claude Julien said after the April 5 game against the Flyers. “He was a great asset tonight with Krejci’s line. I thought he did a great job also on Bergy’s line (on April 3) in Toronto. That line kind of got itself going with him. … It means a lot as far as what he’s capable of bringing to our team.”

For Eriksson, it’s all about making the most of whatever opportunity is handed to him.

“I was used to it in Dallas; I played on many lines, especially at the beginning of my career,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing with, I’m going to do my best when I get out there.”

That willingness to adapt was tested right away as the Bruins opened the playoffs against Detroit on April 18. With Kelly nursing a back injury, Eriksson suddenly found himself the veteran on a line with Soderberg and recent call-up Justin Florek.

“It’s great. He knows the ropes and he’s been there before,” Florek said of his linemate. “For a guy like me coming in here, we have so many veterans in the locker room.”

The playoff opener, a 1-0 loss to the Red Wings in which the Bruins never really got off the ground and were easily handled by Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard, was the first playoff game for Eriksson since May 19, 2008. That night, the Stars saw a promising season end in the Western Conference final with a 4-1 loss in Game 6 — to the Red Wings, no less. Dallas had mounted a bit of a comeback after going down 3-2 in the series but couldn’t overcome three first-period goals by the Wings.

Ironically enough, the Stars finally returned to the postseason this year, ending a five-year drought.

When Eriksson stepped off the ice that night, he couldn’t have known it would be another six years before he’d get back to the playoffs. When the Independence Day trade was completed, he also knew he was coming to a franchise that expected not only to make the postseason but contend for another Stanley Cup.

“I’m just so excited, it’s been so long,” Eriksson said after the Bruins’ final practice before the playoffs commenced. “We know how much fun it is to play these games — it’s more intense, it’s a fast game when the playoffs start, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

In the Bruins’ series-clinching 4-2 win over Detroit on April 26, Eriksson scored a power-play goal just 3:27 into the first to put the Bruins up 1-0, and he earned the Old Time Hockey jacket honor from his teammates for his determined effort. It was his first playoff goal in five years, 11 months and 12 days, the last one coming for Dallas in Game 4 of the 2008 Western Conference finals against Detroit.

“It was definitely a nice feeling to score a goal and get the win, for sure,” Eriksson told media after the game. “I thought they did a good job. They are a tough team to play against, but we managed it good and got the four wins. Now, we’re going to play against Montreal, and it is going to be good.”

Eriksson is now 28 years old. The Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, and the Bruins are not only a Cup contender, but finally ended their own drought in 2011. So a lot has changed.

That’s OK, though. If nothing else, Loui Eriksson has shown this season that he can adapt to change.

Twitter: @A_Merritt

Email: amerritt@hockeyjournal.com

This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.