After spending the entire 2016-17 season in the AHL, Erik Gustafsson returned to the NHL for the second half of 17-18. This past season, Gustafsson had his first taste of a full NHL schedule, and the now 27-year-old Swedish defenseman responded with the most points by a Chicago blue-liner in five seasons.
Gustafsson was an offensive dynamo for the Blackhawks
He scored a career-high 60 points in 79 games, good for fourth on the Blackhawks this season. And Gustafsson’s numbers were among the highest output by NHL defensemen this season:
- His 60 points ranked sixth
- With 17 goals, he was tied for second with Calgary’s Mark Giordano
- He was eighth overall with 43 assists
- He had 32 even-strength points, which tied with teammate Duncan Keith and Tampa’s Ryan McDonagh for sixth
But the power play was Gustafsson’s largest contribution. After he was moved to the point on Chicago’s top power play unit following the hiring of coach Jeremy Colliton, that adjustment — along with subtle shifts in the Blackhawks’ power-play scheme — helped Chicago’s man advantage emerge from last place in the NHL to No. 15 at a 20.17 percent conversion rate by the end of the season. That development was one of the biggest reasons why the Blackhawks resurrected over the second half of the season and jumped back into the playoff chase. Gustafsson’s defensive issues are well-documented and undeniable, but it’s also hard to ignore his offensive production last season.
At an incredibly affordable $1.2 million salary cap hit, Gustafsson seems like a virtual certainty to be back with Chicago next season, even after his name was the talk of trade discussions in February — at least outside the United Center. Internally, reports suggested the Blackhawks had “no interest” in moving Gustafsson at this year’s trade deadline.
Beyond that, though, a significant issue arises with Gustafsson and it involves his particular brand of hockey. As the numbers above suggest, Gustafsson was one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the NHL. The problem for Gustafsson, however, is the Blackhawks have a slew of blue line prospects working their way toward the NHL, with Adam Boqvist (No. 8 pick in 2018) chief among them. And all of those defensemen possess a similar style as Gustafsson: offensive-oriented, puck-moving defensemen.
Should any of those players reach the NHL level, it’s going to make Gustafsson’s game redundant and, possibly, no longer a fit for the Blackhawks. A hockey team can only have so many offensive-minded defensemen — someone has to play defense eventually. Factor in those aforementioned prospects will have three seasons of hockey on cheap entry-level contracts, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where Gustafsson’s long-term future remains in Chicago.
Gustafsson will likely be in the starting lineup come October. But the development of prospects with a similar style of play could spell the end of Gustafsson’s Chicago tenure, as soon as the 2020 trade deadline.