Erik Gustafsson had his doubts that this day would ever come, that he’d find himself not only back in the NHL, but signing a two-year, one-way contract extension with the Blackhawks. After a season-and-a-half in Rockford, Gustafsson appeared to be an afterthought.
Instead, he’s a part of the Hawks’ present and future.
“Two more years,” he said with a smile Tuesday morning. “I’m glad I signed here, and I love this city, I love this team, and I love the fans over here. I’m blessed. It’s fun.”
NHL Network reported that the deal carried a $1.2-million cap hit. That’s a big raise from his current two-way, $650,000 deal, but it carries little risk for the Hawks, who can bury $1.025 million of the cap hit in the minors, if need be.
Gustafsson played 41 games with the Hawks during the 2015-16 season, but then was passed up on the organizational depth chart by young players such as Gustav Forsling and Jordan Oesterle, and veterans such as Brian Campbell and Cody Franson. But Gustafsson bided his time in Rockford and worked on his game. He had five goals and 25 assists in 68 games with the IceHogs last season, and three goals and 14 assists in 25 games this season before being called up in January.
He has a goal and four assists in 19 games with the Hawks this season. And while he still needs work in his own zone — he had a nightmarish game in San Jose last Thursday — the Hawks remain excited about his offensive potential. So does Gustafsson.
“[I need] to play my own game a little bit more,” he said. “I’ve been trying to pas the puck too much. I think I can shoot it a little bit more and create some more offense in the offensive zone. Then try to play a simple game in my own zone, and join the rush as much as I can.”
The blue line is the Hawks’ primary area of concern, and they hope Gustafsson — who turns 26 next week — can be a big part of the long-term solution.
“He’s had some good stretches here,” Joel Quenneville said. “Defensively, he’s fine. Offensively he adds a nice ingredient to our team. … Defensively, there’s room [for improvement] there. As a team, our defense needs to be better than we’ve been over the recent stretch. As a group, we can all improve.”
The Hawks also signed Tyler Sikura — brother of top prospect Dylan Sikura — to a one-year deal.
NOTE: Corey Crawford’s situation is “status quo,” according to Quenneville, and no news is bad news. Quenneville had said last Wednesday that he hoped Crawford, who’s been out since Christmas with a head injury, could get back on the ice after the Hawks returned from their California trip. But he said Tuesday that it’s “doubtful” the goalie will be on the ice in the next few days.
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