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Pending free agent Erik Gustafsson tries to tune out trade talk as deadline nears

The underpaid defenseman is by far the most likely Blackhawks player to be traded by Feb. 24, but he’s still hoping to improve his play on the ice.

Erik Gustafsson is a Blackhawks defenseman for now, but he may or may not be after Feb. 24.
Erik Gustafsson is a Blackhawks defenseman for now, but he may or may not be after Feb. 24.
David Zalubowski/AP

EDMONTON, Alberta — Erik Gustafsson might be in the final days of his time with the Blackhawks.

Or he might not be.

The Swedish defenseman, who will turn 28 in March, has no way of knowing what his fate holds, even as the Blackhawks’ most likely player to be dealt before the NHL’s trade deadline Feb. 24. So he’s doing his best to keep the guessing game out of his mind.

“What happens, happens,” Gustafsson said Tuesday. “If I get traded or stay here, it’s something I have to deal with. But I want to stay here and help this team win.”

All the cards line up in such a way that make Gustafsson an obvious trade candidate, despite playing on a Hawks team that still fancies itself as a playoff contender.

His production is down this year, and 19-year-old Adam Boqvist may have already usurped him — and if not yet, soon will — as the team’s primary offensive defenseman. Between the holiday break and Boqvist’s minor injury last Wednesday, Boqvist had taken over the quarterback role on the top power-play unit and averaged 3:13 of power-play time per game. Gustafsson had averaged just 1:33.

Gustafsson is also set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. His cap hit is an affordable $1.2 million now, but he will probably command around $3 million-$4 million on his next contract, an amount the cap-space-lacking Hawks seem unlikely to be able to afford.

And indeed, Gustafsson’s agent Peter Wallen — who also represents Boqvist, prospect Lucas Carlsson and ex-IceHogs defenseman Philip Holm — confirmed that there have been “no talks at all” about an extension.

Still, there’s a significant chance Gustafsson remains part of coach Jeremy Colliton’s team through at least the rest of this season — if only because the trade deadline is almost always less busy than anticipated.

Thus, Colliton has advised Gustafsson to focus on only what he can control.

“There’s always outside things that can creep into your preparation, and the guys that have the most success are able to shut it out,” Colliton said. “Sometimes it’s [that] guys are worried about next year or their name coming up, and that’s a part of it. Other guys, it’s off-ice stuff, family, their own performance. It’s important that you focus on what’s most important: your next shift, and preparing. That’s how you get through it.”

For Gustafsson, that advice has taken the form of reminding himself of a few pointers before each time over the boards.

“I think [about] being stronger in front of the net and play tough and, on the power play, try to find my confidence a little bit more with the puck,” he said. “But it’s something I have done and I think I’ve been doing it better lately, and I just have to keep going. It’s just thinking about it a little bit before every shift [when] I go on the ice.”

That dedication to improvement will be beneficial no matter where his future lies.

But in the meantime, the wait until Feb. 24 is a complicated time.

“I try not to think about it,” he said.