Arrival of Erixon a Rangers family affair
Highly-rated Swedish defenseman eyes a roster spot on dad's former team
• VIDEO: Erixon Looks Ahead at World Juniors
• Your View: Will Erixon Be in Opening-Night Lineup?
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The NHL Entry Draft's top 10 picks are reserved for the cream of the crop -- the elite 18-year-olds who often develop into the league’s brightest stars.
The 2011 NHL Entry Draft at St. Paul, Minn., won't take place until June 24, but just over three weeks earlier, the Rangers effectively became the first team to land someone who would have been a top-10 pick. This particular player might just be more NHL-ready than anyone else in this year's draft pool.
When Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather made the June 1 trade with Calgary to bring 20-year-old Swedish defenseman Tim Erixon, the son of longtime Blueshirts forward Jan Erixon, into the organization, he virtually pulled the equivalent of a player out of the top 10 in St. Paul.
Erixon, who signed with the Rangers within hours after the trade was complete, had been unable to reach an agreement with the Flames, who had drafted him two years earlier. With his NHL rights about to expire, Erixon was on the verge of re-entering the draft. Had he done that, it is widely believed that Erixon would have raised his previous first-round draft position (No. 23) and moved into the top 10.
"I think I'm a better player than in my draft year, but it's not for me to scout myself like that," said Erixon, who is now 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds. "I definitely feel a lot better and I think I have improved at everything, both in my own end and offensively."
In any case, Erixon is someone other NHL teams would have loved to get another shot at via the draft, but his NHL career is now set to begin in New York. Unlike, most of the highly-rated draft-2011 draft prospects, who are two years younger, Erixon is almost certainly ready to challenge for a spot on the NHL roster right now.
|Defenseman Tim Erixon had this picture taken right after being selected by Calgary in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The Flames were unable to sign him, and he would have re-entered the draft had the Rangers not acted quickly to trade for him.
Given how close he came to re-entering the draft, Erixon was delighted by the happy coincidence of being traded to his father’s former NHL team. Despite the family connection to the Blueshirts, Erixon said he never had any idea that the Flames might trade his rights to New York.
"It just felt surreal to be a part of the same organization as my dad," said Erixon, who grew up a Rangers fan even though he has been to New York just twice since his family moved back to Sweden when he was 2 years old. "It felt surreal and surprising at the same time."
In the 2011 edition of The Hockey News' highly-respected Future Watch issue, Erixon was ranked as the 15th-best prospect playing outside of the NHL, and was No. 4 among defensemen. That makes him the highest-rated Rangers prospect since Marc Staal in 2007, and with fellow Blueshirts prospect Chris Kreider coming in at No. 18 on the list, the Blueshirts have two prospects in the Future Watch top-20 for the first time in a decade.
The Rangers have shown in recent years that they are not afraid to give young defenseman a chance. In 2007, Staal stepped into the lineup as a 20-year-old, and in 2009, Michael Del Zotto did it at age 19. After some time in the AHL, Ryan McDonagh cracked the lineup at 21 last season. With all that Erixon brings with him from Sweden, a regular spot on defense will be within his reach this season, too.
This year’s Rangers training camp will be a delight for those who enjoy tracking the progress of young defensemen. The Blueshirts have a plethora of organizational depth on the blue line, and the vast majority of this talent involves players under 25 years old.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Gordie Clark, the team's Director, Player Personnel, is a former defenseman who played in the NHL with Boston during the final year of Bobby Orr's career with the Bruins. He was later a Bruins assistant coach, working with a roster that included Ray Bourque.
With Clark as the Rangers' point-man at the draft since 2005, the team has selected defensemen with four of their last six first-round picks. In Erixon's draft year of 2009, the Blueshirts had opted to use their first-round pick (No. 19 overall) on a forward, choosing Kreider. Had they gone for a defenseman, Clark knows exactly who would have become a Ranger that day.
"If we had opted to take a defenseman with our first-round pick in 2009, it would have been him," Clark said of Erixon. "He has become just what we would have projected. He needed to beef up, and he knew he needed to, too, when we interviewed him back then. He has matured physically and he has matured his game. At the World Junior Championship, the scouts saw a stronger, more mature version of the guy they had seen in the draft year."
|As a member of the past three Swedish World Junior Championship teams, Erixon has proven how effective he can be on North American rinks. He also discovered that he enjoys playing on the smaller ice surface where he reached bronze-medal games at Saskatoon in 2010 and Buffalo in 2011.
• VIDEO: Erixon Interview at World Juniors
Erixon also had a strong showing in his third consecutive World Junior tournament. Playing on Sweden's top defensive pairing, he helped his team reach the bronze-medal game, where the Swedes fell to Team USA. One of his best moments at this year's World Junior came in a 6-5 shootout win over Canada, when he assisted on a goal to force overtime at 11:43 of the third period.
The 2011 tournament marked the first time Erixon came home from the World Juniors without a medal – although he made up for that later with the silver he won at the IIHF World Championship at Slovakia. At the World Junior level before this year, he had captured silver in his draft year of 2009 and bronze in 2010. He has appeared in 16 of the last 18 Team Sweden games at the World Junior Championships -- a stretch in which the Swedes have gone 14-4-0.
Erixon truly enjoyed his World Junior experiences, particularly the last two on NHL-sized rinks in Saskatchewan and Buffalo.
"They are always tough games, but it was good for me to get used to playing in the smaller rinks," said Erixon. "I found out how much I really like to play in those rinks. Hopefully, I can use the way I play in Sweden in the smaller rinks and in a faster league."
He can certainly provide his share of offense. His 24 Elitserien points in 2010-11 marked a career-high, but the key to Erixon's game is his remarkable ability to read the play at all times. He rarely makes mistakes and has a knack for seeing plays develop ahead of everyone else. Asked to pinpoint the No. 1 asset Erixon would bring to the NHL, Clark compares him to the Rangers center who burst onto the NHL scene this past season as a 20-year-old.
"I think it would be his intellect in terms of how he sees the game, particularly the defensive game coming at him and how he reacts to it," said Clark. "He sees it well and identifies what to do. And then when he does get the puck, he sees who to give it to and how to get his own team going back up the ice on a threat. It would be a defenseman's version of what we see in Derek Stepan."
Too young to remember his father's NHL career, Erixon said his all-time favorite NHL player is Swedish defenseman and future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings
Chosen by the Wings in the third round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Lidstrom went on to inspire countless young Swedes to pursue NHL careers. Erixon is part of an impressive list of post-Lidstrom Swedish defensemen who held similar status as prospects before jumping from the Elitserien to the NHL. This group includes current NHL players Mattias Ohlund, Henrik Tallinder, Niklas Kronwall, Erik Karlsson, and Victor Hedman.
History shows that Swedish-trained defensemen more often than not are NHL-ready from the moment they arrive in North America, and Erixon hopes to be no exception. In fact, he could already be seen as something of a good luck charm for the Blueshirts, given what happened on the day he came into the world.
|Forward Jan Erixon, a defensive specialist, spent 10 seasons with the Rangers from 1983 to 1993 and scored a goal on the day his son Tim was born. The Erixons are set to be the first family in almost 40 years to have two generations play for the Rangers.|
Having Tim Erixon in blue bridges generations of Rangers fans, who recall his father's 10-year NHL career in New York. From 1983-84 through 1992-93, Jan Erixon was the top defensive forward for the Rangers, playing 556 regular-season and 58 postseason games.
He never scored more than eight goals or 30 points in a season, but Jan Erixon was a true fan favorite -- recognized for his hard work and dedication as the inaugural Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner in 1987-88 and the award's first two-time winner in 1990-91.
"It's interesting because he (Tim) has actually got a lot of the same qualities that his dad had when he played," Clark said. "There's nothing really flashy about him, but he makes the right decisions just about all the time."
Tim was Jan's first child, and Jan retired from hockey at age 30 because he wanted to devote himself to family life back in his Swedish hometown of Skelleftea. Tim was so young when he left the New York area that he thinks of himself only as a Swede, although he held automatic dual U.S.-Swedish citizenship for many years.
The younger Erixon has another family connection to the Rangers, and it's one he’s perhaps even more excited about now.
On May 8, just a few weeks before they obtained Erixon, the Rangers added Swedish forward Oscar Lindberg in a deal with Phoenix. Lindberg and Erixon, who were Elitserien and World Junior teammates this past season, happen to be second cousins, sharing a set of great-grandparents through Jan Erixon and Lindberg's mother.
"My cousin Oscar was also traded to the Rangers, so that was one of those things that was pretty amazing," Erixon said. "We grew up together, and I have known him as long as I can remember."
Lindberg said having Erixon in the organization makes him even more excited to be a Ranger.
"It was really exciting news for me," Lindberg said. "It was pretty cool. He called me right after he was traded."
Sweden has always been good to the Rangers -- particularly with Henrik Lundqvist in net for the past six seasons -- and Erixon will lead a wave of Swedes paying their first visit to the Training Center for the Rangers Prospect Development Camp later this month.
On the day he appears in his first regular-season game as a Ranger, Erixon will be part of the sixth family to have a father and son play at least one game for the Blueshirts. They will also be the first Europeans to do it, since the other five families – Patrick, Reise, Hextall, Taylor, and DeMarco – were all Canadian.
Erixon said he has always enjoyed it when his father recalls his days with the team.
"I have heard some of his stories for sure," Tim said of Jan's NHL experience. "It's just good to know that he knows what it takes and he can give me more advice along the way. That's a good thing."
Erixon already understands one thing he must do if he plans to join fellow Swede Lundqvist in the Rangers' lineup this fall.
"I have a big summer ahead of me, and I just have to try to continue to get faster and stronger," he said. "I think that's the most important thing. I'm going to do everything to make sure I'm ready.”
Once he is ready, Erixon has a clear sense of the NHL player he would one day like to be.
"I like being able to play in both ends of the ice. I'm a two-way defenseman, and that's the way I want to play," said Erixon. "I'm going to try to make the team, and I'm going to work hard for that. That's the thing I'm focused on right now."