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Chicago Blackhawks Grades: Erik Gustafsson Debuts Well

By Colin Likas
Oct 30, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson (52) against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson (52) against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /
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Erik Gustafsson‘s First Season With Chicago Blackhawks Was Interesting

We move on to the defensemen in our Chicago Blackhawks postseason grades, and that list will start with youngster Erik Gustafsson. We knew how much trouble the Blackhawks’ blue line was in this season when Gustafsson came up for a second time in late 2015 and never went back to the AHL, although he played well enough at times to earn that right.

Gustafsson was one of the few defensemen (Duncan Keith and Christian Ehrhoff being the others) who the Blackhawks could use to actually move the puck from the defensive end. That led to him getting a nice little pile of points in his first half of an NHL season.

But Gustafsson’s puck luck dried up as the regular season went on, and he saw little ice time and a pair of healthy scratches in the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ first round. That makes his grading process an interesting one.

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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 /

2015-16 regular-season stats: 41 games, 0 goals, 14 assists, plus-11 rating

2016 postseason stats: 5 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, minus-1 rating

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Positives

The biggest positive we saw with Gustafsson was something I mentioned above: He was (and still is) a puck-moving defenseman. After the Blackhawks sent Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders before the 2014-15 season, they were left with very few options who could move the puck from the blue line. Gustafsson may need more development time, but at least he can do the job.

Gustafsson is capable of skating himself out of trouble and was willing to chip in on the offensive end in multiple ways. He actually showed really good offensive-zone vision, which allowed him to set up teammates with scoring opportunities.

Early on in his time with the Blackhawks, Gustafsson didn’t really feel like a rookie. Maybe it was because he started getting a good run of games when the Blackhawks went on their 12-game win streak, or maybe it was because he was contributing points relatively consistently early in his tenure. But that would take away too much from Gustafsson as well.

Gustafsson was generally very calm and controlled trying to make plays in the defensive zone during the early moments of his first NHL action. It was only when opponents started to realize pressuring these guys deep in their own zone was a promising options that things started to slide for Gustafsson.

Joel Quenneville also seemed to take a liking to Gustafsson, using him on the man-advantage and getting him on the ice for an average of 15:27 in the regular season. That’s more than we can say about Q and Leddy.

Negatives

Gustafsson needed to be heavily sheltered in his first season, which you might expect from a guy in his first NHL action. But with the Blackhawks’ blue line in disarray most of the season, they really couldn’t afford it. And so, Gustafsson starting nearly 60 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone during the regular season (ramped up to 66.7 percent in the postseason) doesn’t give us a great idea of what he can or can’t do as a defensive defenseman.

The only inklings we saw of that mostly ended poorly, with Gustafsson getting turned over as a result of taking too long to move the puck out of the defensive zone, or as a result of making poor decisions with his puck-moving abilities. These aren’t things that can’t be fixed and improved upon, but when you’re forced into being an important part of the team defense in your first NHL action, these things tend to stick out.

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Grade: B

Gustafsson will be given the opportunity to make the big-league team out of training camp this year, no doubt. Q was actually attracted to what Gustafsson brought to the ice, and there were certainly some intriguing factors. What remains to be seen is whether or not Gustafsson can become a more well-rounded defenseman who can be trusted in all situations. But for his first NHL action, he fared well enough in spite of the Blackhawks’ over-reliance on him.

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