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Erik Gustafsson needs a longer look with the Blackhawks

The Hawks recently shook up their blue line but have several intriguing young players in Rockford deserving of chances. Erik Gustafsson is at the top of that list.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks see depth on the blue line. It might be filled with flawed players who leave Joel Quenneville turning for the blender every other game, but there's growing confidence in the group. Hawks GM Stan Bowman said as much after trading Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi, the team's newest defenseman, earlier in the week.

"We have seven defenseman we feel comfortable with and we’ve got a couple of guys in Rockford that are playing really well in [Erik] Gustafsson, [Viktor] Svedberg and [Ville] Pokka," Bowman said.

"So we’ve got really 10 defensemen we’re comfortable playing at any point, whether it’s injuries or trying to put a new player in there. It’s nice that we have options. We haven’t had that kind of depth maybe in previous years, where we [now] have 10 guys that can easily play and you’re wondering if they can handle it."

Then again, that last line seems especially notable. "And you're wondering if they can handle it."

Wondering, indeed.

The Hawks' top four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk seems safe. The first three are stalwarts on the team's past Stanley Cup-winning rosters and TVR has emerged as a team favorite since signing as an undrafted free agent last year. Beyond that, Chicago presently has three players, Scuderi, Michal Rozsival and David Rundblad, who range from unproven to undesirable. It didn't take long against Colorado to see how a Scuderi-Rozsival pairing would put a dent in the team's pacing. The Scuderi-Daley deal will likely be remembered as a cap play by Bowman.

You almost get the sense that the GM's expressed confidence is part of maintaining leverage while working the phones as much as a genuine belief in the team's current situation.

The obvious change if the Hawks don't want to keep rolling out a 36-year-old next to a 37-year-old would be giving Rundblad another look. He had a couple decent games -- both in shutouts -- before the Scuderi trade bumped him in favor of the veteran pairing. It's enough that, considering the waiver implications keeping him on the roster in the first place, Rundblad deserves the first shot. The alternative is to let him stew in the press box because Bowman doesn't seem interesting in letting him hit waivers quite yet.

But based on how bad the Scuderi experience gets, the team could let him get waived instead. Ideally, that would open up a spot for another of the team's younger players, at least while Bowman pursues other trade possibilities using the new cap space he freed up by trading Daley. Assuming there's little to no upside in letting Scuderi turn the Hawks' third pairing into a tire fire -- which appears to be the case -- the team might as well keep seeing what it is in someone like Gustafsson, who's quietly had a pretty nice year between Chicago and Rockford.

Part of me feels the haste of writing this article after just one game with Scuderi, but it increasingly seems like his removal from the roster is an inevitability. Whether Bowman can somehow pull off another trade or is stuck placing him on waivers -- which would eventually allow for burying part of his salary in Rockford if he went unclaimed -- Scuderi doesn't seem to have much of a future with this team. The trade to acquire him was about the $1.05 million in cap space freed up, plain and simple.

And the Hawks can free up another $950,000 by sending Scuderi to the AHL, assuming nobody would claim his deal on waivers. That would give Chicago available cap space of roughly $3.14 million, per General Fanager. That would be more than enough to recall anyone currently in Rockford, and would also put the team in position to add a legitimate piece before the trade deadline in February.

But the team would need some reinforcements in the meantime if it's not sticking with the current bottom three defenseman. Among the obvious three options -- Gustafsson, Svedberg, Pokka -- the former seems like the best bet to get first crack. Goose clearly made an impression on the team during his brief stint while Keith was injured earlier this

"I know he can help us," Bowman said of Gustafsson. "I just had a chance to see Rockford play on Saturday [a 4-1 loss to Grand Rapids in which Gustafsson had five shots on goal]. Erik was excellent. He played really well up here and I was very impressed. There’s no question he can play in the NHL."

Gustafsson, 23, didn't really deserve to be demoted when he was. It was simply that the Hawks had too many defensemen on the roster once Keith returned. And because Gustafsson was one of the players with a waiver-exempt contract, he was reassigned over players who had not performed as well. Now that the team has taken a further step back from that group by downgrading from Daley to Scuderi, it's getting harder to keep Gustafsson out of the top six or seven on the depth chart.

Everywhere he's played, Gustafsson has done well this season. In six games with the Hawks, he recorded three assists and a team-high 64.2 percent Corsi at even strength. Yes, that came with Joel Quenneville largely putting him in favorably circumstances, but he stepped up to the occasion nonetheless. The defenseman had points in two of his final three games before being sent back down.

And in Rockford, Gustafsson has been very good, too. He's second on the team in scoring by a blue liner with nine points in 22 games. Only top prospect Pokka, with 15 points in 26 games, has been more productive. And in terms of shot creation, Gustafsson is averaging over 2.4 shots per game, which is among the highest figures on the team. At both levels, we've seen Gustafsson drive possession and create chances. Even if he lacks the big shot of Rundblad or the pedigree of Pokka, Gustafsson might be the one most ready to play the Hawks' style consistently.

And that's something we probably can't say for Scuderi, who lacks the foot speed to play the Hawks' puck-moving system. Maybe he can be one of those rare players whose grasp of the system helps overcome those physical deficiencies like Rozsival, but based on his track record, I wouldn't bet on it. Chicago will probably keep seeing what it is in the 37-year-old before making the tough decision to get him off the roster, but if (okay ... when) that happens, someone needs to get Goose on a bus back to Chicago.