Soderberg, Eriksson Impress in First Year with B's

Wednesday, 05.21.2014 / 11:22 AM
Jess Isner  - BostonBruins.com

BostonBruins.com — Neither Carl Soderberg nor Loui Eriksson knew what to expect when they showed up for training camp in Boston last September. The one thing they did know was that they would be challenged.

For Soderberg, it wasn’t his first go-around with the Bruins. The forward signed with Boston in April 2013, just in time for the tail-end of the team’s push toward the playoffs. But there were challenges out of the gate for the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Swede, who had to find a way to transition his game from the Swedish Hockey League to the National Hockey League.

Soderberg played in just six games with the Bruins before the lockout-shortened regular-season ended. Then he played in two more games in the postseason before his 2012-13 season ended. Coming into training camp at the end of the following summer, his objectives were clear: arrive in prime physical condition and and get acclimated to the tempo of the NHL game. Soon to be 28 years old, he wasn't your average first-year NHL player, but he was determined to show he belonged.

“He didn’t play for a month, from the time when he left Sweden and the time that he played for us, and he was a little overweight, from a hockey playing standpoint,” recalled Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli. “So he came back [to camp] in terrific shape. He knew where he had to be. He came back in terrific shape, and he just hit the ground running.

“I’m glad he got in some games last year in the playoffs because it really helped. You know, I remember him telling me in the exit meeting — ‘I know what to expect now.’ It’s such a high level and a high tempo, so it really helped him for the summer.”

Eriksson came into training camp with even less experience with the Bruins — zero, to be exact. On July 4, 2013, he learned that he had been traded from Dallas to Boston along with Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser and Joe Morrow. The subsequent adjustment was huge: new teammates, new system, new city, new life.

The Bruins wanted Eriksson because he was already a strong two-way player and he projected to fit seamlessly into Boston’s system. But the transition was a challenging one, and it took some time for him to flourish.

Two concussions in the span of five weeks early in the season didn’t help, either. He suffered one after taking a hit from John Scott on October 23, and another at the hands of Brooks Orpik in early December. The concussions led to a 21-game absence and prevented Eriksson from getting into a groove with his new team, from finding his game and from establishing his place in the lineup.

When he finally returned — for good — on January 11 against San Jose, he came on strong, and he never looked back.

“It’s definitely been a challenge, having been through injuries and definitely coming to a new team with everything, and to adjust to everything — how they play here and the system and everything,” Eriksson said. “But I think I learned a lot from this year, too, and I’ll take with me the good stuff from this year and try to come in next season even better.”

Part of Eriksson’s resurgence came as a result of his experience in Sochi, where he led his Swedish Olympic squad to the gold medal came in February. Ultimately, Sweden lost to Canada, but along the way, Eriksson found his game, registering two goals and an assist in six games. He found his scoring touch. He started thriving again.

The Loui Eriksson that returned from Sochi was a new Loui Eriksson. Part of that was a carryover from his strong Olympic play, but another part of that was the chemistry he developed with his new linemates — one of whom was Soderberg.

Eriksson started his Bruins career on the second line. But in January -- partly due to a plethora of injuries and partly due to some experimental line changes by Head Coach Claude Julien -- the Bruins debuted a new third line, with Soderberg at center and with Eriksson and Chris Kelly on the wings. And the new-look third line would evolve into one of the Bruins’ strongest during a historical month of March in which the team won 12 straight games and ran away with the Eastern Conference.

“Maybe the style we played when we were younger [helped], and maybe more of 'keep the puck' and making small passes to each other,” Eriksson said of his chemistry with Soderberg. “I think [Soderberg] is a great player with the puck, and with his big body, he can make really good plays out there, so just trying to build on every game we can and every practice we can try to help each other.”

Though Soderberg considers himself a natural center, he spent the first chunk of the 2013-14 season at left wing. Then, Kelly went down with a fractured fibula, and Providence callup Ryan Spooner came down with the flu. Soderberg was installed at center, first sat a stopgap, then as a permanent solution.

It wasn’t a solution by default, though. He got his shot, and he kept it with his dominance.

“He’s just so strong — he’s strong on the puck, and his passes -- he may be the hardest passer on our team, forehand and backhand,” Chiarelli said. “His backhand pass can be so hard — I haven’t seen it like that in a while from a player, and they’re right on the tape. So he’s got good sense, and he’s so strong, he protects the puck.”

Four times this season, Soderberg embarked on four-game point streaks, and three of them came after he transitioned to center. During a crucial three-game road stretch in March against Tampa Bay, Florida and Montreal, he registered four points, and it was during that same stretch that his line started playing its best hockey of the season.

“We knew [Soderberg] was a great player,” Julien said. “I think he led the scoring in the league in Sweden the year before he came to us, so we knew he had that skill. He just came to us, and I think for him last year, when he came to us maybe a little late, he didn’t get much of a chance to play yet and feel his way through.

“But couple of things you noticed is that he needed to be in better shape, which

he did this year — got himself in great shape — and the experience he got throughout the year.

Eventually he just kind of found his game, and he’s fitting in extremely well. He’s a big, strong

centerman and seems to make great play sand seems to be all over the puck all the time.”

Even after Kelly went down with a herniated disc just before the postseason, Soderberg and Eriksson kept right on rolling, no matter who was playing with them on the wing — whether it was Justin Florek, or Jordan Caron, or Daniel Paille, or Matt Fraser. Their chemistry was never disrupted. They kept shooting, and they kept scoring.

Soderberg finished the 2014 postseason with six points in 12 games, including three (two goals, one assist) in a critical Game 5 victory over Montreal in the second round. In that same game, Eriksson registered two points (one goal, one assist) and finished the postseason with five points in 12 games.

The postseason didn’t end the way the Bruins wanted it to. The unexpected end came too fast, and every player up and down the roster felt that this team had more to give than it did.

“It was definitely tough,” Eriksson said on locker cleanout day, which came two days after a 3-1 loss to Montreal in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. “You want to go and try to win it, and it was a tough two days here. It’s never fun to lose that way, and Game 7, too — so it’s not fun.”

Added Soderberg, “They play a different game — a couple of teams in the league play a fast, skilled game, and they don’t really want to create battles. That’s the way we usually like to play, so we have to adjust our game a little bit. But you have to be able to play both kind of games, and I think we are, too — I think we’re a skilled kind of team, and fast team, too, but it was — going through Game 7 could have been different, too.”

But when it came down to it, both Eriksson and Soderberg made big impressions at the perfect time: down the stretch run and into the postseason. They may have gotten off to slower starts than desired, but in the end, it didn’t matter because they won’t be remembered for the way they came out of the gate.

They will be remembered for giving the Bruins one of their most consistent, most dominant lines when it mattered most.

Even better: The consensus is that both Soderberg and Eriksson have more to give. They can still be better — better than they were at the end of the regular season, and better than they were in the playoffs.

“Loui, I think, he came in, and it was a difficult transition for him, and then he got hurt,” said Bruins President Cam Neely. “We think he can be a better player. He’s proven to be a better player, and that’s our expectation — that he can be a better player.

“We’ve got our players that helped us actually have the best record in the NHL in the regular season. We could have gotten more out of everybody in the playoffs, and I expect those guys to improve.”

To other teams in the NHL, that could be scary. To the Bruins, it is thrilling.

“A lot of [Soderberg’s] play fits into how we play, and there’s room to improve,” Chiarelli said. “There’s room to improve. He’s been improving on the faceoffs, he’s improving his D-zone coverage, he’s getting more comfortable with his linemates, so he’s been good all year. I’ve been very happy with Carl.”

For now, Eriksson, Soderberg and the rest of the Bruins will take a few weeks to decompress, to get away from the game and to recover from the long, grueling season. But in a sense, they can’t wait for the next few weeks to be over, because that means it’s time to train and time to prepare.

Then, it’s time to get right back at it.

“I learned a lot from this year — how to play, and how they want me to play, too — so that’s something I’m all set for coming in for next season,” Eriksson said. “I know this stuff now, and like I said, I’m already kind of excited to start a new season — just that it ended pretty fast here with that last game. You always want to come out and be better, and I think I can do a little bit better next season.

“[I’ll] probably take a few weeks here with the family, just get away a little bit, get some time with them. Then you start refocusing on getting better and getting in shape, and you always have the summer to build up so you can come into camp at your best.”

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