Tomas Jurco, Erik Gustafsson return from Rockford with confidence, excitement

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Tomas Jurco has 16 goals in 172 career NHL games with the Red Wings and Blackhawks. (AP Photo)

Tomas Jurco sounds different. Since he returned from Rockford last week, he is speaking more quickly, with more volume and firmness behind each word. He sounds more quippy, happier and less worried. There’s a confidence about him that hasn’t been there before.

The reason? For the first time in four years, he has been playing hockey. Not just practicing, playing.

“The last time I played regularly was my first year in the NHL, ’13-14,” he said. “I was playing 15 minutes every night and I was feeling great. That’s a long time ago. I’ve been either a healthy scratch or playing 7, 8, 9 minutes a night since then. It’s tough. So going back to Rockford and playing a lot, that’s what I needed.”

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That’s the whole idea behind sending a guy down to the American Hockey League, of course. Give him more playing time. Give him a bigger role. Turn timidity into confidence, hesitation into aggression.

It worked last year for Nick Schmaltz. The Hawks hope it works again this year for John Hayden. And now here come Jurco and defenseman Erik Gustafsson, both forgotten and leapfrogged by younger prospects, suddenly back from Rockford with an attitude the Hawks have been waiting to see from them.

The question is, will there be an opportunity for either of them? Up front, Anthony Duclair’s arrival left the Hawks with 12 well-entrenched forwards. On the back end, the Hawks have carried eight defensemen all year, and had to waive solid veteran Cody Franson just to bring up Gustafsson.

So Jurco is the 13th forward. And Gustafsson is the eighth defenseman. They’ve both been scratched every game since being recalled last week. But it still beats being in Rockford. The IceHogs served their purpose, and now both players hope to never return.

“I’m glad to be back,” said Gustafsson, who played 41 games for the Hawks during the 2015-16 season, posting 14 assists. “Even if I’m not playing, I know I’ve been playing well down there and earned a spot up here. I’ve just got to wait for my opportunity.”

Gustafsson, like Jurco, regained his confidence with time in Rockford. He had three goals and 14 assists in 25 games this season and was named an AHL All-Star. And like Jordan Oesterle, to whom general manager Stan Bowman favorably compared him, Gustafsson can play both the left and right sides, giving him a greater chance to crack the lineup.

He said he spent the summer on the ice, working on his skating. And his decision-making is both faster and more aggressive now than it was as an NHL rookie, when he felt the weight of every choice to pinch in the offensive zone, knowing it could mean an odd-man rush the other way and a spot in the press box the next game.

“I think I got a little nervous and didn’t trust it my first year,” Gustafsson said. “It’s something you feel inside of you — ‘I can’t go on this puck, I can’t join the rush.’ And if you think like that, it’ll affect you negatively. But I have my confidence back now and it feels great. You have to be positive out there. You have to trust your instincts.”

Coach Joel Quenneville has said repeatedly that he wants to get both Jurco and Gustafsson into the lineup, but he didn’t manage to do that leading into the bye week. So the trick for the two 25-year-olds is to keep that confidence and that rhythm now that they’re going at least two weeks between games.

“This is business, and there are a lot of guys in the league doing the same thing,” Jurco said. “We’ve just got to figure it out. And hopefully, this year, I’m going to figure it out more than I did in the past.”

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