Ready For The Challenge
Eriksson blossomed into game-breaking, offensive Star
Sunday, 05.24.2009 / 11:42 PM / Feature
By John Tranchina
One could make the argument that Dallas Stars third-year left winger Loui Eriksson’s breakout 2008-09 season, in which he led the squad in goal-scoring, would make him the leading contender for the club’s Most Valuable Player award.
|Loui Eriksson Video Highlights|
Without his big year, it’s difficult to imagine the Dallas Stars staying in the Western Conference playoff race for as long as they did, even though they ultimately failed to qualify.
With the club’s unusual run of injuries to forwards all season, one constant was Eriksson, who was one of two Stars to skate in all 82 games this year (along with center Mike Ribeiro). He was also a prime example of a guy who flourished with increased ice time and responsibility, logging 19:49 of ice time per contest, a significant increase from the 14:02 he averaged last year. Eriksson’s outstanding year also included a personal-best 63 points, good for second on the squad, along with four game-winning goals (tied for second) and one shorthanded marker.
“It’s been a really fun year for me, I’ve been getting a lot of opportunities and I have been playing a lot,” said Eriksson, a native of Goteborg, Sweden. “It’s been great for me this year, it feels good. From my perspective, I always try to go in and do my best out there, try to build on every game you play, and I think a lot of young guys have been doing that, too. You want to get better every day you get in here.”
After recording 14 goals and 31 points in 69 games last season, Eriksson enjoyed a strong playoff run last spring, connecting for four goals and eight points in 18 post-season contests as the Stars advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Often teamed on a line with center Brad Richards, the two have displayed impressive chemistry as Eriksson took it to the next level this year.
“Like I’ve been saying the whole year, I’ve been trying to stay in front of the net and the puck seems like it’s been coming to me in front there, and I’ve been able to put it in,” Eriksson said of his offensive success this year. “Obviously, I’ve been playing with some great players, too, Richie and Ribs and a lot of good guys, so it’s been good.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Richards said of skating on a line with Eriksson most of the year - until Richards suffered injuries that caused him to miss 25 of the final 26 games. “I got to play with Loui last year at the end of the year and I told some people that he’d have 20 goals no problem, and some of those people laughed at me and he ended up with 36, so that shows you. I didn’t see that but I could see he’s going to be a great player for a lot of years. I love his attitude, he’s a great human being and he’s quiet. He just goes about his job, you never hear him complaining about anything. It was a real joy to kind of follow and watch him. He’s so young and kind of naïve, it was just every night, just score some goals and life goes on, it seemed easy for him.
“I felt more and more comfortable the second half of the season playing with him, so I’m very excited to have someone coming in next year that I have chemistry with.”
But Eriksson is far more than just a sniper with a nose for the net. An outstanding defensive presence as well, Eriksson’s performance has engendered many comparisons to veteran Finnish teammate Jere Lehtinen, a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. One small indicator of his two-way prowess can be gleaned from the fact that he led the Stars with a +14 plus/minus rating, which is nine more than any other forward on the club.
“Offense is just a small role of what he’s doing for us,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s our leading goal-scorer, but he plays in all situations. He’s a solid, solid player. He’s turned into one of our glue guys. When you put him with somebody, he makes that line better. We’ve compared him a little bit to Jere Lehtinen in the past, and he’s young in that respect, but Jere always had that ability to make the line that he was on a complete line and Loui is doing that right now.”
Eriksson has also been one of the Stars’ best penalty killers and he and Richards were usually deployed against the opposing club’s top forwards with the mission to shut them down.
“He’s stepped up, as our scouts and our coaches, I think, have hoped and thought he could,” said associate coach Rick Wilson, who is in charge of the PK unit. “That’s just a huge plus, because he has a kind of presence on the ice, both defensively and offensively. He’s done a whale of a job. He really now leads our way defensively in terms of line match-ups or whatever. Where Loui is, that’s usually where we want to focus on their best line.”
And as well as he meshed with Richards, though, it’s a testament to Eriksson’s skill and determination that his production did not suffer after Richards left the lineup. He did take a few games to adjust, registering just one assist in the next five outings, but over the final 21 games without his linemate, Eriksson excelled, posting nine goals and 19 points.
“He’s a really good player, I love to play with him, but I’ve been playing with a lot of different lines the last couple of years, so I’m used to it,” Eriksson said of adapting to linemates other than Richards. “You always try to go in and do your best for the guys you play with. It seems like it’s been pretty good.”
Eriksson had such a good season, he earned an invitation to join Sweden’s national team at the prestigious World Championships tournament in Switzerland from April 24-May 10. In his first action with his country’s senior national squad, Eriksson collected three goals and four assists in nine games, including a goal and an assist in the bronze medal game, as Sweden defeated Team USA (and teammate Matt Niskanen) 4-2. One has to believe he’s going to be in the mix for a spot on their roster for next February’s Vancouver Olympics.
“It’s going to be real fun because it’s my first time to play there,” Eriksson said in April before leaving for Switzerland. “It’s like the playoffs and it’s going to be a really inspiring tournament for me just to experience. To be able to play on a big rink again, it’s going to be a little different. It’s going to be awesome.
“I love playing hockey, so now I get an opportunity going there and play some more hockey, so obviously, it’s going to be really fun.”
Heading into next season, Eriksson, who will be 24 when training camp rolls around in September, knows there will be pressure on him to repeat - and build on - his performance this year and is ready for the challenge.
“It’s going to be tough, but I’m going to do my best next season,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Eriksson, the Stars’ second-round choice (33rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. “I need to get bigger and stronger, and that’s what you need the summer for. I think everyone’s going to go home and have a good summer and get better.”
Richards is confident that his linemate will be up to the task.
“I’m going to come in ready to go and I couldn’t be happier knowing I’m going to be playing with him,” Richards said. “His learning curve is huge. He’s going to be a better player, whether he scores 36 goals or 33 goals next year, he’s going to be a better player. He’s got a lot of areas of the game. He’ll probably have a lot more assists next year, because people are going to be keying on him and he’s going to have to learn how to move the puck in different situations. He’s going to be keyed on for sure. It’s going to be a different year for him, but with his willingness to go to the tough areas, he’s always going to score goals, because he’s not scared to go there.”
“He just continues to improve every day,” Tippett added. “He’s just a very good two-way player. He plays the game hard, he plays the game the way it should be played positionally, sound in all aspects. He’s just been a good player for us.”