It’s not often that you see a 60-point defenseman and think, “This guy probably tops out as a third-pairing bumslayer.” But that’s what we got with Erik Gustafsson, who’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a position on the blue line. He was the ambergris of the Blackhawks: a weird combination of gross–great as exciting, frustrating, and terrifying as discovering your sexuality.
79 GP, 17 G, 43 A, 60 P
50.24 CF%, 45.5 xGF% [5v5]
It Comes With a Free Frogurt!
We didn’t bury the lede here. Erik Gustafsson scored 60 points. That’s sixth among all NHL defensemen. You know who else did that? Brent Burns, Mark Giordano, Morgan Rielly, John Carlson, and Keith Yandle. That’s good company.
And it wasn’t all on the power play. His 13 even-strength goals tied him for third among defensemen, along with Roman Josi and Kris Letang, and just behind Morgan “Fuck spelling” Rielly and Dougie Hamilton.
From about December 18 on, he took the point on the top power play unit and brought it back from the dead. From that day on, the Hawks led the league in PP% at 27.1%.
The only guys ahead of him in scoring on the Hawks were two future Hall of Famers in Kane and Toews, and a budding star in Alex DeBrincat.
All of this came from out of nowhere, too. After being drafted by the Oilers in 2012, Gus had only played a total of 76 games before this season, racking up 14 points in 15–16 (all assists) and 16 points in 17–18 (five goals, 11 assists). There were a few flashes of brilliance from him toward the end of the year in 17–18, especially when he was out there with Kane, but nothing that could have predicted what we got from him this year.
Plus, strictly by the statistics, Gus was decent in terms of possession. His CF% was a pubic hair above even, which, relative to the Hawks, was Dirk Digglerian.
And it’s all at bargain basement prices, as Gus is signed through next year at a cool $1.2 million.
And yet . . .
The Frogurt Is Also Cursed
Gus couldn’t find his own asshole in the defensive zone with both hands and a hemorrhoid donut. Watching him in his own zone was like watching a never-ending game of “HEY WILLIE! CATCH THE FOOTBALL!” He took huge risks while skating with a partner who’s only slightly less of a cowboy than he is. He hung his goalies out to dry more often than not. And it didn’t look like he was actively trying to improve that as the year went on. Scoring 60 points excuses a lot of things.
Remember that for a time, there was discussion about turning Gus into a forward because of how woeful he looked as a defenseman. And some of the numbers flesh that out. Despite starting a tad over 60% of his time in the offensive zone at evens (not just 5v5), the only defenseman to give up more high-danger chances against was his running mate, Duncan Keith (363 and 367, respectively).
It’s the same story with high-danger goals against, with the two of them present for 47 HDGA each at evens. While Gus didn’t have the worst rates in terms of high-danger chances and goals allowed (which belong to Carl Dahlstrom and Brandon Motherfucking Manning), it sure is odd for a guy who starts so much time away from his own goaltender to be on the ice for so many chances.
Unless, of course, you’re Erik Gustafsson.
Can I Go Now?
Erik Gustafsson is polarizing. It’s hard to true up the fact that he’s both a 60-point scoring D-man and a bad D-man, but here we are. He’s not quite a forward, and he’s not quite a D-man, but maaaaan.
The Hawks have shown no interest in trading Gustafsson, and it’s really as simple as pointing to those 60 points and that $1.2 million deal. But doubling your career point total from out of nowhere in your age 26 season is so far out of the realm of normal that it’s a hell of a risk to assume that he can do it again. And if he does it all over again, you can bet he’s going to be looking for some serious Fuck You Money.
Gus at $1.2 million makes sense. If he scores 60 or more again next year? That’s a hell of a decision to make with the re-sign. Are you comfortable paying $5–8 million a year for a D-man who doesn’t play defense, especially when you have four young D-men who are all offensively minded coming up in the next 3–4 years (in theory)? Especially when the only guy who’s shown he can play consistent defense is Connor Murphy?
It would hard to justify trading him (likely as a package) for anything but a proven #1 D-man. Sixty-point D-men are rare, even if they do look stupid out there sometimes. And above all, Gus is fun. If the Hawks don’t have a plan for how they’re gonna win another Cup with the Core—and to reiterate, they don’t—the least they can do is make it fun.
But if I’m Stan Bowman, I’m calling Dave Poile at whichever banner shop he’s at that makes every kind of banner except a Stanley Cup Champions banner and offering Gus, and Boqvist or the #3 for P.K. Subban, because anyone stupid enough to blame Subban for Nashville’s woes might take that offer no questions asked.
For now, all we can do is watch and wonder as Gus Diarrhea Dragon’s his way up and down the ice, bringing the backend offense we’ve so desperately wanted and the awful defense we’ve grown so accustomed to.
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