There were times last season when Erik Gustafsson stopped looking over his shoulder, when the fear and the concern dropped away and he felt not only that he belonged in the NHL, but that he was here to stay. On the ice, he was reacting, not thinking about what to do. Off the ice, he was reveling, not thinking about when he’d play next.
But not always.
“Sometimes after a game, I felt like I could get sent down to Rockford right away,” Gustafsson said with a laugh.
That’s life as a rookie. But this year was going to be different. After playing 41 regular-season games and five of seven playoff games, and occasionally showing the offensive flair that earned him a contract with the Blackhawks to begin with — especially early in the season before he hit the rookie wall — Gustafsson had good reason to suspect he was now a full-fledged NHL player. Viktor Svedberg did, too, having played 27 regular-season games, improving significantly as the season went on. And the way Hawks general manager Stan Bowman has raved about Gustav Forsling, the 20-year-old Swede certainly had to think he had a real chance of making the team this season.
Then the Hawks signed Michal Kempny. Then they re-signed Michal Rozsival. Then they signed Brian Campbell. And just like that, Gustafsson and Svedberg were ticketed for Rockford, and Forsling was likely headed back to Sweden.
“Of course, it’s tough to at first,” Gustafsson said. “It’s a lot tougher to take a spot here now. But we’re all still fighting for a spot. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got to just work hard in the games and practices and show them that I’m the guy they can trust.”
From the Hawks perspective, it’s a great problem to have. The blue line has been painfully thin in recent seasons — Joel Quenneville leaned on just four defensemen in the 2015 Stanley Cup run, and regularly used three rookies last season. Suddenly, he’s got a surplus of NHL-ready defensemen. And if history is any indication, he’ll need them. The Hawks used 11 defensemen last season, and 13 the year before.
“It’s good for the team, right?” Svedberg said. “We’ve got a lot of ‘D’ that can play at that high level. Campbell, he’s one of the best players. Just seeing him out there, you see how good he is. It’s great for the team and you want the team to be good. Yeah, there’s one less spot [with each signing], but I don’t see it like that, to be honest. For me to be able to play, I need to compete either way.”
Forsling — at four years younger than Gustafsson and five years younger than Svedberg — can afford to be a little more patient. He said he’s perfectly happy to spend another year in Sweden if he doesn’t make the team. But that won’t stop him from trying to force the Hawks’ hand.
“There are a lot of good ‘D’s here,” Forsling said. “It’s going to be tough, but let’s see what happens.”
The best hope for the trio of defensemen — as well as Ville Pokka, who is next in line after that group — is that the Hawks keep eight defensemen, not seven, to start the season. Bowman said that the Hawks will limit Rozsival’s games to keep him fresh, and it’s too early to say whether Kempny is ready to be an everyday player in the NHL right away. An eighth defensemen could give Quenneville a little wiggle room.
So instead of battling for a regular spot in the lineup, Gustafsson, Svedberg and Forsling are competing for the mere potential of a platoon gig. But hey, it’s still better than playing 25 minutes a night anywhere else.
“If you are over here, you can play one game and do good, maybe score a goal, and then the next day you’ll probably be in the lineup again,” Gustafsson said. “That’s what I did last year. I went up here and took my chance. So I’d rather be up here.”