BOSTON (CBS) — One thing Loui Eriksson has proven in his three seasons with the Bruins is that he’s fearless when it comes to going to the front of the opposition’s net.
However, there are areas Eriksson won’t visit. One of those is his the topic of his current contract negotiations, which recent published reports described as being in their early stages. Eriksson, who is in the final year of a contract with an average annual value of $4.25 million, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
So far this season the 30-year-old Eriksson has met the challenge of playing in the final year of his contract. He’s second on the Bruins with 39 points and he’s third with 15 goals. He’s been a major factor in the Bruins’ power-play resurgence, which has seen their man-advantage rank in the top two of the NHL for months.
Greater players than Eriksson, though, have wilted under the pressure of completing a contract and the distractions of trade rumors. Earlier this season, Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos was mired in a slump, which many attributed to his status as a potential UFA and/or trade bait at the end of this month. He has since emerged from that slump and now has 21 goals.
The weeks between the All-Star break and the Feb. 29 trade deadline are when the speculation will intensify and it’ll be interesting to see how Eriksson handles the talk.
“I’m just going to try to focus on my game and try to help the team as much as I can and play good,” he said after the Bruins’ first practice after the All-Star break Monday at TD Garden. “All the other things I can’t really control right now and all I can do is go out there and play hockey and like I said help the team a lot and play good. So that’s all I’m going to focus on.”
Eriksson admitted that he’s never been in this situation. So his words sound right but we won’t know if he’ll be able to turn them into undistracted action until the next four weeks are through. The rumors are guaranteed to keep popping up in concert with updates about the contract negotiation. Eriksson’s not only going to get questions about the situation while at home but also during a mid-month, six-game road trip, which includes stops in Winnipeg (where the Canadian media never lets a player in trade rumors out of its crosshairs) and his old stomping grounds in Dallas.
This situation isn’t going away until Eriksson signs an extension or gets dealt. That doesn’t mean he’ll be calling the shots when it comes to deciding to take a hometown discount to make sure he doesn’t strangle the Bruins within the salary-cap structure.
“That’s something my agent and everyone around it has to talk about. I’m not trying to go into that battle. I’m just trying to play my game and trying to be good and help the team,” Eriksson said.
The Bruins haven’t had too many players in Eriksson’s situation over the years because of former general manager Peter Chiarelli’s propensity for getting his higher-end players signed early. When there have been contract distractions, coach Claude Julien’s teams have handled them.
If Julien had a say in the matter, though, the Bruins and Eriksson would enter into a marriage for the foreseeable future.
“I’d like to keep Loui, period. Just like the guys that have left us I would have loved to have kept,” Julien said. “So those are things that, as a coach, I’d like to have Looch [Milan Lucic]. I’d like to have [Dougie] Hamilton, other guys, sure. But we couldn’t keep them for different reasons. … I can’t do anything about it. I can only coach what I have now. I enjoy having him. I think he’s a great player and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
As much as Eriksson has seemed impervious to violence in front of the net and has dealt with injury and offensive struggles with stoic determination, the distractions that are going to crop up between now and the trade deadline are a different animal. Eriksson mentioned that his family, which includes a baby on the way, is part of the reason he wants to stay in Boston. But family could intensify the distractions. The wife and kids are going to want to know where daddy’s going to be playing and where they’ll be living after all.
The Bruins won’t make the playoffs without Eriksson duplicating his performance from the first half of the season during the next four weeks, when he’ll be battling more than opposing defensemen. We’ll find out exactly what he’s made of during this crucial stretch of the season.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.