In late April, 2015, the Chicago Blackhawks made a move that few people around the league seemed to notice: they signed Swedish defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a two-year contract. The young Swede was coming off a 29-point campaign in the SHL and earned a contract from Chicago after not signing with the Edmonton Oilers, who drafted him. It’s safe to say that Edmonton would like to get that opportunity back after watching Gustafsson develop into a smooth-skating regular on Joel Quenneville’s blue line.
Finding Some Offense
Thankfully for the Blackhawks, Gustafsson has delivered in the same area where Trevor Daley and David Rundblad failed before him.
As for Rundblad, Q basically said the #Blackhawks wanted to get Erik Gustafsson in the lineup, so Rundblad was the odd man out.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) January 3, 2016
His offensive awareness and passing ability were praised by assistant coach Mike Kitchen at intermission on Tuesday against Pittsburgh, and those same skills have made him a perfect fit in Quenneville’s system. And playing most of his minutes with veteran Brent Seabrook has allowed the younger defenseman to take some offensive chances, which has resulted in him posting six points in his first thirteen NHL games.
Playing his Role
He has also benefitted from the strong defensive play of Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who normally take on the most difficult defensive assignments for the Blackhawks. Gustafsson, as a result, has posted the best CF%RelTM (+6.2) on the roster according to puckalytics.com, while outplaying slightly lesser competition.
And while playing against lower lines with Brent Seabrook as his defensive partner might not sound like the most challenging role to take on, just remember how miserably Rundblad failed in a similar role in his brief stay with Chicago. Gustafsson sets himself apart from the departed Rundblad by making quick and intelligent decisions with the puck on breakouts and through the neutral zone. Those are underrated skills that don’t appear in the stats column, but they set him apart from many of the rotational defensemen Chicago has used over the years.
Ability of that nature is one of the most important aspects for defensemen playing under Quenneville, and a quick look at defensive staples in Chicago will reveal similar ability. Another quick look at those players will reveal another trend: many of them are Swedish-born. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but Hjalmarsson, Gustafsson, Johnny Oduya, and Viktor Svedberg are all Swedish, which speaks to Chicago’s willingness to scout talent in diverse locales.
The team’s success with those players is impressive to say the least, and with another strong group of young Swedes on the verge of hitting the NHL, there’s a chance that their success will be sustained.
Regardless of where he is from though, Gustafsson’s play has been an exciting development for Blackhawks fans and coaches alike. He has seamlessly filled a hole as a depth player and seems to improve with every game. If his development continues on its current path, watch for Gustafsson to remain a Chicago staple for years to come.