Joel Quenneville can be a scary guy. The steaming and the glaring, the screaming and the swearing — Erik Gustafsson knew all about it when he was in Sweden. He heard all about it when he was in Rockford, too, that mix of fear and frustration from fellow young players who had felt Quenneville’s wrath. And when Gustafsson got called up to the Blackhawks, he dreaded it.
“You see him on the bench screaming at the ref, and you realize you don’t want to be on the same side as the ref,” Gustafsson said with a chuckle. “He’s a big coach — a big coach in the whole world. It’s a big thing to play for him.”
And an awfully hard thing to win him over. It’s a baseless, trite, lazy narrative that Quenneville loathes all young players. The near-immediate success of the likes of Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad and Trevor van Riemsdyk disproves such a theory.
But Quenneville isn’t big on growing pains and learning curves, either. If you can’t play right away, if you’re unwilling or unable to play the way Quenneville demands — particularly on the defensive side of things — then you’re not going to get much of a chance. Case in point: David Rundblad. Quenneville always says he’s in “the winning business.” And if you can help him win, no matter your age, you’re Quenneville’s guy.
And Gustafsson has very quickly become Quenneville’s guy.
“It’s a tough league to come into right off the bat and establish yourself, knowing there are reads and so many different situational plays over the course of a game,” Quenneville said. “Getting up to speed always takes time. But you play to your strengths, and you get better every day on the job. I like [Gustafsson’s] reads, and he’s improving in that area. But his upside with the puck is the part that really jumps out.”
It’s been a meteoric rise for the 23-year-old blue-liner. A year ago, Gustafsson was a former Oilers fourth-round pick toiling in the Swedish Hockey League. Eight months ago, he was a Hawks signee who figured he was still up to two years away from the NHL. Now, he’s the No. 4 defenseman on the defending Stanley Cup champions, Brent Seabrook’s partner, a point man on the power play, and an awfully impressive, highly skilled rookie.
He’s the latest high-impact, low-cost addition by Stan Bowman, signed one day before Artemi Panarin last spring.
“It’s been quick, very quick,” Gustafsson said. “When I signed in April, I didn’t know how long it would take. My coach back home in Sweden told me, ‘Ah, you’re too young for this. You’ve got to be here at least two years, and then maybe go over.’ But you’ve got to take the chance, right? You don’t get this opportunity a lot. I had no [doubts]. When I signed that paper, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, [bleep], what did I do?’ I had only positive thoughts.”
And he’s had only a positive impact on the Hawks. In just 12 games over two stints with the Hawks this season, Gustafsson has five assists. His offensive talent was on full display in Friday’s win over Buffalo, setting up Niklas Hjalmarsson’s first-period goal with a smooth centering pass after an effective pump fake.
It’s his second stint with the Hawks this season, but he’s likely here to stay. The Hawks feel he’s the responsible-yet-offensive-minded No. 4 defenseman they thought they were getting when they acquired Trevor Daley in the Patrick Sharp trade. As a bonus, he makes nearly $3 million less than Daley did.
“I like his patience with the puck, his play recognition,” Quenneville said. “I like his involvement in the attack, I like how we exit our zone with the puck. I like his patience and play recognition in the offensive zone.”
In other words, Quenneville likes him. A lot. And that’s no small feat for a rookie defenseman.
“He can be tough,” Gustafsson said. “But it’s the NHL. It’s tough to play up here. I’ve tried to show him and the staff that they can trust me out there. I think do a little bit right now, but I have to keep showing them more if I want to stay here the whole season.
“They don’t just call up guys here. You get called up because they have faith in you and they believe in you — that you can help the team. I’m trying to show them that I can do that. I didn’t know it was going to happen this quick, but I’m very glad to be here.”