Even before the end of the 2014-15 season for the Chicago Blackhawks, they knew that their defense core would look slightly different, next year.
Gone are the likes of Johnny Oduya, who manned the third pairing alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson for nearly all of his time in the Windy City, and Michal Rozsival returned to the club in surprising fashion, signing a one-year contract during training camp.
Since Rozsival has yet to play this season, still recovering from an ankle injury that abruptly ended his 2015 campaign, the Blackhawks had to call for help.
Enter Erik Gustafsson. The Blackhawks signed this Swedish free agent, and former 2012 fourth-round draft pick, to a two-year deal back in April of this year. Gustaffson was regarded as a depth signing at the time; a player the Blackhawks could call upon in case one of their regulars went down for any period of time.
With the knee injury to 2015 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith, the window of opportunity was opened for Gustaffson. He was recalled by the Blackhawks from the Rockford IceHogs, with whom he played his first 8 games of the season, and his NHL career was set to begin.
Gustaffson didn’t waste any time getting on the scoresheet, when he recorded an assist in his first NHL game against the Minnesota Wild. Backed up behind the net, Gustafsson threw a 100+ foot pass up the middle to Artem Anisimov, who streaked in on a breakaway and promptly scored. It was a risky play by the rookie, but it earned accolades from nearly everyone after the game, including head coach Joel Quenneville.
Since then, Gustafsson has added another assist, playing in four more games. Though he is still searching for his first NHL goal, he is already chipping in offensively at a solid pace, and holding his own in the defensive end.
Gustaffson, who regards himself as an offensive defenseman, has shown his defensive side more than once in his first five NHL games. Even though the Blackhawks’ defense has been shaky overall since Gustafsson has entered the fold, he holds a +4 rating. Not bad for someone who hadn’t played on the North American ice surface until this October.
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Quenneville has given a lot of slack on the leash, as far as Gustaffson is concerned, and he has responded well so far. With Duncan Keith and Michal Rozsival both expected to return in the next week, it seems that Quenneville and Stan Bowman will have some decisions to make, regarding who to keep around, and if they need to send anyone back to Rockford.
If they choose the latter, it will be a battle between Gustaffson and David Rundblad, to see who gets to stay, and who has to go. Rundblad has taken the backseat to Gustaffson through the past few games, but with the Blackhawks facing trouble with the salary cap, it seems that Rundblad’s one-way deal may take the priority over Gustaffson, who can be sent down without having to clear waivers.
Gustaffson has played very well for the Blackhawks in his short time here so far, and if he remains in the Windy City, look for him to excel playing alonside the likes of Duncan Keith. If he does go back to Rockford, no worry – he still has a bright future with the Blackhawks’ organization, spanning from now until at least spring 2017.
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