While the Grand Rapids Griffins may not be the powerhouse team they were last year in the AHL, they are keeping themselves competitive in the West Division, with a 20-16-4-2 record. A handful of new faces are contributing to the team, and one of them, rookie defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, is certainly turning a few heads with his play.
Ericsson, a native of Karlskrona, Sweden, is getting his first taste of North American hockey this season. While it will take some time for him to adjust to the smaller rinks and quicker pace of the AHL, Ericsson seems to be enjoying it so far.
“It’s pretty tough,” he said of playing in his first AHL season. “It goes pretty fast, and it’s more up and down than it is in Europe where they have wider rinks, so it’s a more spread out game. But I like the smaller rinks and the faster games, so it’s been okay.”
Ericsson has been a pleasant surprise so far this season on a young Griffins blue line, especially considering the fact that he just switched to playing defense relatively recently in his hockey career. Up until the 2001-02 season, Ericsson had been a center for every team he played for in Sweden.
s=”MsoNormal”>His switch to defense came during that season while he was playing junior hockey with Hasten. After a number of injuries knocked several regulars out of the lineup, he was forced to play defense for one game. It had just so happened that Hakan Andersson, Detroit’s Director of European Scouting, was attending that game, and liked what he saw.
“We had a lot of defensemen who were sick and injured that game,” Ericsson said in recalling the experience. “Since it’s more natural for a center to play defense than, say, a right wing, I played D for that one game. There was a scout from Detroit who was at that game and he was actually there to watch a player from the team that we were playing against, so it was a big coincidence.”
Andersson was so impressed with Ericsson’s play, that he approached Hasten’s coach, who just happened to be Ericsson’s father Sven, and told him he thought the towering 6’5, 205-pounder should stick to playing defense.
In fact, Andersson liked what he saw so much that he went so far as to tell the newly-turned blueliner that Detroit would pick him in that year’s draft. That was a promise that he kept as the Red Wings selected Ericsson with the 291st pick – the last selection of the 2002 Entry Draft.
Ericsson continued to play in his native Sweden the next year. During the 2002-03 season and through the 2004-05 campaign, Ericsson jumped around leagues in Sweden, splitting time between the junior level where he played chiefly defense, and the Swedish Elite League, where he often suited up as a centerman. But the idea of constantly switching positions wasn’t something that gave Ericsson much trouble.
“When I was young, I played a little bit of defense, but then it was mostly center until 2002,” he said. “After that, it was playing mostly defense except when I would switch for a couple of the clubs I’d play for [in Sweden] who would want me to play center.
“Center and defense are pretty much the same with the kinds of responsibilities you have in the defensive zone,” he continued. “You also have to join the rush and be a bit of an offensive player. But my role in Sweden was to be a defensive center and kill penalties and things like that, so it wasn’t too bad.”
Now that he’s made the jump over to North America, Ericsson has played exclusively defense with Grand Rapids.
“I haven’t played any center, but that’s good – that’s what I want,” he said. “If they tell me they like me better as a center, then I would have to deal with that. But I want to play D.”
And he’s been playing very well. Ericsson’s plus-13 rating is by far the best on the team, and he’s also chipped in 22 points (four goals, 18 assists) in 39 games.
While he said that he hasn’t had one steady partner that he’s been paired with all season, Ericsson has seen time on both special teams units, and is usually paired up with fellow prospect Kyle Quincey on the first line of the power play. Griffins head coach Greg Ireland has certainly been impressed with what the first-year backliner has brought to his club.
”He’s been really good,” he said. “We weren’t sure what to expect because we knew he’d had some struggles with confidence playing over in Europe, but he came over and had a great training camp with us, great rookie camp, and he’s just blossomed. He’ll go through a little period where he starts trying to do too much, but once he settles in, he’s a real force on the ice.”
Ericsson has certainly already come further than most in his situation would, considering his up and down career overseas and his low draft position, but Ireland believes the sleeper pick has all the tools to gain even more success.
“His size, his reach, his skating is excellent. He’s seeing the ice very well for us,” he said. “He just transitioned into defense in the last few years and he’s really done a tremendous job. He’s got a lot of upside, and he’s jumped over a lot of prospects to get ahead in the food chain within the Red Wings organization, and a lot of it has been because of his play in the last five months.”
Should Ericsson maintain the steady play he has shown through the first half of this season and continue to improve, it would certainly not be out of the question to see him in a Red Wings jersey in the near future.
“For him to get up the NHL would just be a tremendous story,” said Ireland. “But he’s really worked hard to get there.”
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