A few feet of ice and a 6-foot-2, 215-pound teammate stood between Erik Gustafsson and the puck. With all his might, Gustafsson threw his 5-10, 180-pound body into Michael Young and reached around him with his stick to get at the puck. Young's job was to protect the puck. Gustafsson was supposed to be the "dummy."
Gustafsson squirmed back to his right, stick jockeying for the puck, still, as he pushed forward. Then he went down to the ice, basically crawling for the prize.
Had this not been a drill, in the middle of July, during the Flyers' prospect camp at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, Gustafsson would have claimed the puck three or four times over.
Ian Laperriere's advice, no doubt, was fresh in Gustafsson's mind: "Keep paying attention to details and do everything as if [you're] in the game and keep working hard every day. Do all of the drills as they're meant to be."
That's the only way the 22-year old defenseman will reach his goal of becoming an NHL player. At Gustafsson's size, he has to play the game with heart.
He had been undersize and unnoticed for the majority of his hockey youth in his native Sweden.
By the time he was 18, everything came together for the self-described "late bloomer," and he gained a "deeper understanding" of the game, collecting 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists) for his junior hockey team in Sweden. The NHL draft wasn't even a thought, but fortunately for Gustafsson, an assistant coach at Northern Michigan had watched him play.
"I wasn't ready to go play pro in Sweden or here," Gustafsson said.
Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle, who has experience as an NHL assistant, started teaching the offensively skilled Gustafsson the finer points of his position, while he had to face older and stronger college players.
That's what may be holding back Gustafsson, who signed a contract with the Flyers after his junior year. It's overcoming his size to become a reliable defender.
"He's going to have to [learn to defend] if he wants to play at this level," Laperriere said. "I mean, there's no choice. He won't get bigger."
Gustafsson described himself as a talented puck handler with a good first pass, but he emphasized that he wants to do his work in his own zone first.
"I'm a small defenseman. That's just how it is," he said, adding that his biggest weakness is getting bullied in front of the net at times. "But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think it helps me be agile, and maybe I can surprise bigger forwards with a good stick or coming around closely or have a good gap on them."
To his credit, Gustafsson twice was named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's best offensive defenseman, recording 34 points in 40 games as a sophomore, then 32 in 39 as a junior.
Last year, with the Adirondack Phantoms, Gustafsson struggled defensively in the first half of the year then turned things around after Christmas. He finished the season with 49 points in 72 games.
The Flyers seem to have their six defensemen lined up for 2011-12, but Laperriere didn't put it past Gustafsson to apply pressure on management to make room for him in the NHL or keep him ready to fill in for an injured player. He's considered one of the most NHL-ready prospects at the camp and played in three games for the Flyers last season.
The skill is there, and the defense may come in due time.
"He's that kind of guy who plays a similar game to Kimmo Timonen: very smart, and good offensive flair out there," Laperriere said.
"They're both lefthanded, and they're smooth with the puck. They're smooth skaters. But Kimmo's got the experience. He came into the league really late and gained all of that experience in Finland and where he played, and came in very poised. They both have similar personalities: laid back and very poised. I think it's only time for [Gustafsson].
"Kimmo had his time to learn, and now I think Gus is going to need his time to learn how to be a good NHL defenseman."