Former Flyers prospect Joacim Eriksson has signed a two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, according to northern Swedish newspaper Norran. The goalie will come over to North America next season.
The Flyers originally drafted Eriksson in the seventh round, 196th overall, of the 2008 NHL Draft. A product of the Brynäs IF Gävle development system, Eriksson was stuck behind the more highly touted Jakob Markström (drafted 31st overall by Florida in 2008) and towering Anders Lindbäck (drafted by Nashville in the seventh round in 2008, 207th overall) on the Brynäs depth chart.
As Markström and Lindbäck established themselves as NHL-worthy prospects at the Elitserien level, Gävle native Eriksson spent a productive extra year in the Under-20 league following the 2008 Draft. He also attended the Flyers' annual summer prospect camp, where the other player gave him the nickname "Sunshine" for his resemblance to the character by that name in the movie, Remember the Titans.
Still blocked by Markström, Eriksson had to go elsewhere to find playing time at the senior level. He was loaned to Allsvenskan (minor league) team Leksand for the the 2009-10 season. Eriksson enjoyed a dominant season, albeit with a very strong team in front of him.
In 2010-11, Eriksson signed with Elitserien (Swedish Elite League) club Skellefteå AIK, where he served as the backup to veteran netminder Andreas Hadelöv. Eriksson did not fare particularly well in his rookie year, showing some flaws -- rebound control, a tendency to go down too early -- that the higher-grade competition was able to exploit.
At this point the Flyers had a decision to make: sign Eriksson to an entry-level contract or relinquish his rights. Signing him would likely have meant he'd have been on his second NHL contract by the time he was NHL-ready, because he was at least three to four years away. He had just 17 games of Elitserien experience under his belt at this point. Also, the player himself admitted that he didn't feel ready to come play in North America. If the Flyers had signed him, they probably would have loaned him back to Skellefteå until he showed he was ready.
In the meantime, the Flyers had scouted a late-blooming Finnish goaltender whom they liked: 6-foot-7 Pelicans Lahti goaltender Niko Hovinen. Two years older than Eriksson, Hovinen was originally drafted by Minnesota in the fifth round of the 2006 NHL Draft but went unsigned after struggling for several years in Finland's SM-liiga. However, Hovinen finally came into his own in 2010-11, and established himself as the one of the top goalies in that league. Hovinen was the third-string goalie on Finland's gold-medal winning team at the 2011 World Championships.
Based on advice from scout and former pro goalie Neil Little, the Flyers felt the waiting time on Hovinen to be ready for North American hockey would be shorter than the wait on Eriksson. They signed the big Finn and chose to relinquish Eriksson's rights. Eriksson became a free agent for NHL purposes in the summer of 2011.
During the 2011-12 season, the decision to sign Hovinen seemed promising. He had an outstanding year for the Pelicans despite some groin and hip issues in the second half of the season that necessitated offseason surgery. In the meantime, Eriksson split playing time with the soon-to-retire Hadelöv and enjoyed a greatly improved second season in Elitserien.
Hovinen reported to the Adirondack Phantoms training camp before the 2012-13 season. Penciled in as an AHL goalie ahead of college free agent signee Cal Heeter on the depth chart, Hovinen had a miserable camp while Heeter had a strong one. As a result, Hovinen was sent to the ECHL's Trenton Titans.
Things got worse for Hovinen in Trenton. His play was extremely erratic. He dealt with an early season upper-body injury after getting hit up high with a shot. Worst of all, the Flyers organization quickly grew disenchanted with what they perceived to be a lack of hunger to improve his game and suspect competitiveness on the ice. Hovinen quickly became the backup to New Jersey Devils' prospect Scott Wedgewood.
Around midseason, the Flyers released Hovinen from his contract. He was picked up by the Edmonton Oilers organization, spending the rest of the season as a struggling goaltender for the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons.
Over in Sweden, Eriksson split playing time with Skellefteå roughly in half with Markus Svensson. Eriksson started 30 games, posting a 1.67 GAA, .931 save percentage, 21 wins and five shutouts. Svensson played in 27 games,with a 2.04 GAA, .919 save percentage, 17 wins and three shutouts. In the first round of the playoffs, the two netminders continued to share playing time. Thereafter, a red-hot Eriksson became the go-to goalie for the duration of the postseason.
Ultimately, Eriksson backstopped Skellefteå to the Swedish championship. During his magnificent playoff run, he posted three shutouts, 1.06 goals against average and .952 save percentage.
Not surprisingly, the 23-year-old Eriksson drew considerable interest from NHL clubs. There were reportedly as many as a half-dozen teams who contacted agent Joakim Persson to express interest in Eriksson. Although no NHL teams were ever identified publicly, it was said off-the-record that the Flyers, Oilers and Flames were among the clubs with interest. Today, on the deadline for NHL teams to sign contracted Elitserien players, Eriksson accepted an offer from the Canucks.
Eriksson is expected to spend next season in the American Hockey League. I would liken the 23-year-old Eriksson's career status right now to where Bruins' prospect Niklas Svedberg was a year ago at this time.
Svedberg, who turned 23 last September, was coming off a strong season and even better playoff run en route to backstopping Brynäs to the 2012 Swedish championship. When he signed with the Bruins as a free agent, Svedberg realized that he'd have to serve an apprenticeship in the AHL. He went on to win AHL's version of the Vezina Trophy (the Baz Bastien Trophy) as a rookie. Although still stuck behind Tuukka Rask in his quest to someday become an NHL starter in Boston, Svedberg has unquestionably emerged as a bonafide NHL prospect. Eriksson will need to take similar steps over the next year to reach the next phase of his development.
Hindsight is always 20-20. The Flyers appear to have made a mistake in signing Hovinen rather than signing Eriksson and allowing him all the time he needed to be ready to come over to North America. He'd have been on the final year of an entry-level deal next season as a Phantoms rookie.
Of course, there are no guarantees that Eriksson will be able to do anything close in the AHL -- much less the NHL -- to what he accomplished for Skellefteå this past season. Keep in mind that a) he has never been a full-season starting goalie at the Elitserien level, b) the Swedish league has become a low-scoring one in general, so most of the goalies on the better teams have impressive-looking stats in that circuit, and c) there is an adjustment period needed for European goalies to adapt to the angles on the smaller rinks in North America and the more shoot-first oriented style of play. Niko Hovinen could attest to the fact that a successful season or two in a top European league may not translate to strong play in North America even at the minor league level. It's a different game over here.
I have seen Eriksson play about a dozen times on streamed Elitserien regular season/playoff games over the last three years. He has improved immensely from his rookie year with SAIK, when I had doubts if he was going to develop into an above-average Elitserien starting goalie, much less a significant NHL prospect.
I don't consider this a legitimate reason, but this was no doubt a factor in Philly's original decision to go for Hovinen over Eriksson: Hovinen's 6-foot-7 frame intrigued the Flyers. Eriksson (6-foot-2) is far from small but, as a rookie and second-year player in Elitserien, he seem to position himself in a similar deep crouch to the one that had some folks convinced that former Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was several inches shorter than his listed 6-foot-2. This year, Eriksson seemed to "look bigger" in his net, so I'm sure there have been adjustments made. He has also improved his puckhandling. Of course, it will be an ongoing process for Eriksson to continue to refine his game and get acclimated to the smaller rink.
Eriksson is the second goaltending prospect this summer with a past connection to the Flyers who went on to sign with another organization. In April, 24-year-old Eric Hartzell (a non-Flyers roster invitee at the 2012 Flyers' prospect camp list prior to a Hobey Baker finalist 2012-13 college season for Frozen Four runner-up Quinnipiac) elected to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins after the Flyers were initially reported to be front-runners to sign him.
This offseason, the Flyers organization signed another 2012-13 Hobey Baker nominee, 24-year-old Niagara University netminder Carsen Chubak, to an AHL contract; meaning that he is eligible to play for the Phantoms next season but not the Flyers. Chubak will have the opportunity to win the backup job to second-year pro Cal Heeter.
Anthony Stolarz, the Flyers second-round pick in 2012 NHL Draft, is still at least one full season from being AHL-ready and could be three or four years from potentially being NHL ready. However, Stolarz is coming of a year of steady improvement at the NCAA/OHL levels and is the best long-range goaltending prospect current in the Flyers' system.