Chicago Blackhawks’ Erik Gustafsson Shows Promise

Jan 26, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Erik Gustafsson (52) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 26, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Erik Gustafsson (52) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 5-0. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports /

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson is having a great rookie season in the NHL, though few have noticed. That could be a blessing for the 24-year-old from Sweden. Over the course of the season, Gustafsson has been called up from Rockford twice. He has played 33 games in a Blackhawks sweater this season, and, playing outside of the spotlight, Gustafsson has been able to focus on his game without the extra pressure from fans and the media.

It can be a difficult transition for young players coming from the European leagues to the NHL, and many players struggle in their first year to adjust to the different flow, pace and style of play featured at the NHL level. Gustafsson has succeeded in impressing the Blackhawks’ coaching staff, and he has proven that he belongs in the starting lineup on one of the most competitive rosters in hockey.

Coach Joel Quenneville is not shy regarding lineup changes. He wants to win, and he is going to play the guys who help him and his team win. When Gustafsson was given the opportunity to play alongside star defenseman Brent Seabrook, he took advantage. In his first 10 games, Gustafsson recorded four assists and a plus/minus rating of 7 — he was on the ice for 12 Blackhawks goals.

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Defensively in his first 10 games, Gustafsson blocked eight shots and pinned 13 hits on opponents. In comparison, by that point in the season, Niklas Hjalmarsson had recorded 17 hits in 41 games, and Trevor van Riemsdyk had accumulated 23 hits in 41 games. Since then, Gustafsson has continued to contribute on both sides of the ice. He currently stands with 12 assists in 33 games, with a plus/minus rating of 9.

Gustafsson’s success is partially due to the fact that his style of play fits with Chicago’s team strategy and overall game. He plays patient defense, always looking to break up plays and force turnovers. He likes to create chances on the rush by passing or carrying the puck out of the defensive zone. In the offensive zone, he is persistent — unafraid to shoot, comfortable holding the puck at the point, and incredibly cool when slinging the puck around to teammates, searching for the goal.

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The Blackhawks play a fast, highly skilled game that focuses on quick transitions out of the defensive end, through neutral ice and into enemy territory. Once they’re on the offensive, the ’Hawks cycle the puck; skate, distribute and shoot. Gustafsson is the perfect fit for this type of system, and the Blackhawks’ coaching staff recognizes that. Coach Quenneville praises Gustafsson for his composure, his ability to move the puck and for his attacking mentality. The coaches trust Gustafsson’s ability to create, and they show their confidence in him by giving him opportunities on the powerplay — opportunities that rarely fall to rookie defensemen.

The way that Gustafsson has been playing this season, he should be dressing to play every game, but instead he’s stuck in rotation with Michal Rozsival and Christian Ehrhoff. The Blackhawks have gone for a dive recently, dropping big games and losing by big margins. It has been messy following the trade deadline as the coaching staff has been tooling around with the lineup, trying to find the winning chemistry. And while Gustafsson has played in three of the past five games, including a win against Detroit, he needs to continue to get out on the ice, night after night.

He is still contributing offensively — he scored an assist during the recent loss to the L.A. Kings — and if he continues to play, he will continue to continue adjusting to the NHL level, improve and build confidence for himself. Trevor Daley turned out to be a dud on defense, but if Gustafsson gets his legs under him and hits a hot streak, he could fill the role that Daley was supposed to have: that of an offensive D-man who conducts the play both in transition and inside the attacking zone. With the playoffs ahead, the Blackhawks need to collect some wins, and Gustafsson can help them do just that. All the coaching staff has to do is put him on the ice.

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Looking forward to the playoffs, the Blackhawks’ bench will be stacked with seasoned defensemen, most of whom have chased the Stanley Cup on multiple, deep playoff hunts. Veterans are always key players during the playoffs. They bring confidence and composure, as well as discipline. But then, to win the Stanley Cup, a team needs that fire — that inextinguishable desire to win. Young guys bring the spark. They are the fuel that keeps the fire burning. This is a key reason the team needs to play Gustafsson in the playoffs. He’s a young guy with a lot to prove, chasing down a childhood dream, and he’ll play like hell. Who knows, he could be a touch of lightning, the heart paddles of Chicago’s 2016 playoff run. Let’s get him skating.