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Erik Gustafsson learning to prioritize defense as Blackhawks shift philosophies

The once ultra-offensive defenseman has finally adopted a more defensive approach, with encouraging results, in recent weeks.

Erik Gustafsson’s defensive play has improved greatly in recent weeks.
AP Photos

ELMONT, N.Y. — Times have changed since defenseman Erik Gustafsson first joined the Blackhawks’ organization in 2015.

It’s easy to forget how long ago he arrived in Chicago because of his brief stints with four other teams between February 2020 and October 2021.

‘‘I was gone [from Chicago] for COVID, and when it was over I came back,’’ he said with a smile.

In reality, however, Gustafsson has experienced firsthand every phase of the Hawks’ tumultuous evolution since their last Stanley Cup title.

During the last few years, what has stood out most to him is the Hawks’ philosophical shift toward a greater emphasis on defense.

‘‘When I first left [in 2020], we had some struggles in our own zone,’’ Gustafsson said Sunday. ‘‘But when I came back, it felt like we were very structured and playing how we were supposed to play, even when we didn’t start well [this season].

‘‘The more games we play, we start to trust each other and we start to play the right way. It makes it so much easier when you can trust your ‘D’ partner and the center and whoever’s low among the forwards.’’

Even though he is a defenseman, Gustafsson never has been much associated with defense. He made it to the NHL — and broke out with his still-hard-to-believe 60-point season in 2018-19 — because of his ultra-offensive tendencies.

For years he was paid to focus on scoring, so he did. Even when the points dried up somewhat in recent years, that remained his first priority, which resulted in a tendency for excessive turnovers.

But the philosophical shift within the Hawks, accelerated and cemented by Derek King’s appointment as interim coach and associate coach Marc Crawford’s elevated influence, finally caught on with him, too. Gustafsson at last is learning how to put the ‘‘defense’’ in ‘‘defenseman.’’

‘‘I’m starting to [adapt],’’ he said. ‘‘My main focus has been the defensive part and trying to help the team be solid on the back end. I’ve been losing my offensive play a little bit, but I can take that if I can play in the defensive zone a little bit better.’’

‘‘[He needed] just to simplify his game,’’ King said last week. ‘‘He tends to overthink it and [want] everything [to be] a home-run play or a highlight play, and it was getting him in trouble. But he’s really settled it down. You can see by the minutes he’s played from Day 1 to now; he’s gotten so many more minutes. He’s trustworthy, and he’s figured out the game.’’

On Nov. 7 — King’s first game in charge — Gustafsson played only 6 minutes, 21 seconds, prompting a postgame talk in which Crawford ‘‘gave [him] some stuff to work on.’’ His ice time rose to 8:06 the next game, then to 13:57. He has averaged 19:13 in the last eight games.

By Nov. 23, King said Gustafsson had ‘‘put himself in a position where it’s hard to not play him, it’s hard to take him out of the lineup.’’ That comment initially raised eyebrows, but it also shed light on Gustafsson’s improvement, which only has become more obvious since.

In his first 15 games, Gustafsson allowed 56.4 opponent shot attempts and 28.2 opponent scoring chances per 60 even-strength minutes. Of those scoring chances, 46% were considered high-danger. Opponents outscored the Hawks 12-10 during his ice time.

In his last eight games, however, Gustafsson has allowed only 42.9 opponent shot attempts and 24.0 opponent scoring chances per 60 even-strength minutes, and only 33% of those are high-danger. The Hawks have outscored their opponents 10-5 during his ice time.

That’s a dramatic turnaround, albeit in a limited sample size. Still, Gustafsson said he thinks it reflects a real change in his approach.

‘‘[Crawford is] on us every shift to be ready, to be in the right position, to have a good stick or be on the right side all the time,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think it’s anything different, but . . . it helps me.’’