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Axelsson heading for home

He leaves Bruins for Swedish team

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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A regular post-practice sight at Ristuccia Arena was P.J. Axelsson, his blonde hair gelled and styled and spiked in every direction, striding to the parking lot, just about always wearing some outlandish combination of top and pants. His Bruins teammates usually would roll their eyes, smile, and toss one final barb at the well-liked, and therefore roundly abused, left wing.

The Bruins no longer will have the opportunity to ride, in several senses of the word, the versatile forward. Axelsson, 34, signed a four-year contract yesterday with Frolunda, his former Swedish Elite League club, after spending 11 NHL seasons pulling on a Black-and-Gold sweater.

“When you look at Bruins history, the classic Bruins, it’s lunchpail hockey,’’ said Neil Abbott, Axelsson’s agent. “P.J. was a Bruin through and through, true to the core. With his hard work and determination, he gave it his all. I never saw any client work harder and have more fun doing it than P.J. He loved wearing that jersey.’’

Axelsson, Boston’s seventh-round pick in 1995, closes out his Boston career with 103 goals and 184 assists in 797 games. Axelsson is 10th on the organization’s games played list. Only seven players from the 1995 draft have appeared in more games than Axelsson (Radek Dvorak, Shane Doan, Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, Petr Sykora, Wade Redden, and Sami Kapanen).

Axelsson’s numbers, however, fall short in reflecting the duties he carried out in Boston since 1997-98, his rookie season. For seven coaches (Pat Burns, Mike Keenan, Robbie Ftorek, Mike O’Connell, Mike Sullivan, Dave Lewis, and Claude Julien), Axelsson served as a multi-purpose plug-and-play peg who filled just about any hole in the lineup.

Under Burns, Axelsson established himself as a shutdown left wing on a checking line with Tim Taylor and Rob DiMaio, scoring eight goals and 19 assists as a 22-year-old rookie. In the first round of the 1997-98 playoffs, Axelsson became part of one of the most controversial plays in team history. In overtime of Game 3 against Washington, Axelsson’s game-winning goal was rubbed out by referee Paul Devorski because Taylor had part of his left skate in the crease. The Capitals would win the series.

Julien leaned on Axelsson to skate in multiple situations. Axelsson, an alternate captain, moved up and down the depth chart, even taking some shifts at right wing. Axelsson (6-24 -30 in 75 games in 2008-09) was one of the team’s ace penalty-killers (2:30 of shorthanded ice time per game, most among Boston forwards). After Marco Sturm ripped up his left knee and was lost for the season, Axelsson saw time on the No. 1 power-play unit as the goal-line/net-front lefty until the arrival of Mark Recchi at the March trade deadline.

Axelsson has been known as a defensive-minded wing, but Julien tabbed the Swede as a go-to man in the shootout last season. Axelsson went 2 for 5 with two game-deciding strikes, using his preferred move of ambling down the right wing, cutting into the slot, then going the other way on his backhand.

Off the ice, No. 11 (Axelsson entered the league wearing No. 57) was one of the most vocal players in the dressing room. He commanded respect, but he also received his fair share of ribbing because of his wry sense of humor and unique fashion. Some teammates referred to Axelsson as Zoolander, Ben Stiller’s model character.

“He was such a hard-working, dedicated, consistent performer,’’ Abbott said. “He was not flashy. Every coach that came here, I don’t think you’ll find one that didn’t come away with a true appreciation of how good that kid would play defense.’’

Axelsson had completed the last season of a three-year, $5.55 million contract. The Bruins have Milan Lucic, Recchi, Sturm, and Shawn Thornton pencilled in for left wing in 2009-10, with youngsters Vladimir Sobotka and Brad Marchand sniffing for NHL jobs. Abbott said he had discussions with several teams in each conference about three-year deals for Axelsson, but those deals were dependent on the teams clearing cap space.

Axelsson then considered one-year offers. But after weighing different factors such as moving from Boston and his growing family (Axelsson’s wife is expecting their second child in October), he opted to return to his old team in Sweden. Abbott said the Bruins did not make an offer.

Axelsson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2006, is pushing for a spot on Team Sweden for next year’s Winter Games. Abbott said Axelsson would like to play 4-5 more years.

“He’s sad to be leaving Boston. No question,’’ Abbott said. “He’s been here for a long time, his whole career. He’s very appreciative of the Boston fans and sends his thanks.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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