There are always mixed feelings when it comes to Erik Gustafsson, even from the man himself.
No matter how imperfect his season has been for the Blackhawks, it has been a breakthrough. His emergence as an every-day defenseman is a huge step, but it’s not a full-fledged arrival, and Gustafsson knows it.
“Of course, it’s been good for points and stuff like that, but at the same time, I need to work on stuff, too,” he said. “Breakthrough or not, it feels good out there when I play. I feel confident.
“It’s been OK. Ask me again after the season’s over.”
In the last 13 games — the Hawks’ next game is a visit to Toronto on Wednesday — the team needs Gustafsson’s spotty defense to become as dependable as his proficient offense, the trait that has made him so alluring. It turns out that playing good defense is an essential part of the job description for a defenseman.
The good news for the Hawks is it appears that Gustafsson is getting there. He’s certainly a late bloomer as he turns 27 on Thursday and is nearing the six-year mark since being drafted in the fourth round, but he hung around long enough to get this opportunity.
Gustafsson was fifth among NHL defensemen with 13 goals and eighth with 49 points heading into Tuesday night’s games.
Coach Jeremy Colliton loves his impact on offense, and one of his most significant lineup changes came when he put Gustafsson on the No. 1 power-play unit. But defensive inattentiveness was a persistent problem.
The boiling point wasn’t that long ago. Colliton benched him for the third period Jan. 14 because his effort was unacceptable. It became a sore spot in their relationship, and Colliton offered little more than, “Gotta give us a little more,” as an explanation.
Gustafsson seemed to get the message.
“I’ve gotta be more aggressive in my own zone, and I struggled with that at the beginning of the season,” Gustafsson said. “I’ve been starting to play a little bit better at the end here, but I think I have much more to show out there on the defensive part.”
Since Gustafsson’s benching, the Hawks have shown modest improvement in shots against and scoring chances against with him on the ice in five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick.
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Colliton has trusted him in tough spots, too, and he has done well. Gustafsson was on the ice at the end to help the Hawks preserve a 2-1 lead Saturday against the Stars, and last month against the Red Wings, he chased down a puck in overtime to start the rush that ultimately led to him assisting on Patrick Kane’s game-winner.
“Part of being a defender today is you need to make a play to get out of the D-zone,” Colliton said. “If you don’t make a play, then you never get out. That’s part of what he brings.”
Gustafsson was a great find by the Hawks after the Oilers let him walk in 2015 without ever appearing in a game. He has reached a level where the team can pencil him in as part of its future or use him as trade bait, and he’s under contract through next season with a salary-cap hit of $1.2 million.
On top of that, he still might be on the rise. Setting aside his age, it’s important to remember that this is the first season in which he has played more than 41 games. He also seems receptive to Colliton, who sees a higher ceiling.
“He makes plays not many guys in the league make,” Colliton said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to ask him to do more away from the puck and defensively because ultimately we don’t want him to limit himself as far as what player he can be. We want him to be dominant at both ends.”
Contributing: Ben Pope