As we move down the Hawks’s agonizing back-end, which at this point resembles someone who’s fallen into a porta-potty in a Super Mario Bros.-esque attempt to warp to a different place after the mushrooms really started to kick in, we reach a relative bright spot. We often bemoan the fact that the Hawks don’t have a puckmover on defense anymore, given Duncan Keith’s wrestling match with the ravages of time and Joel Quenneville’s hatred of everything beautiful in Michal Kempny. But if you squint, Erik Gustafsson can maybe fill that need.
35 GP – 5 G, 11 A
55.4 CF%, 57.4 oZS%
Avg. TOI 18:33
A Brief History: You may remember Erik Gustafsson from such films as Signing a Two-Year, $2.4 Million Extension in the Middle of March and Scoring 11 of His 16 Points After the Extension. (What do you know? A guy scoring a bunch after his extension.) While that’s clearly a coincidence, Gustafsson does bring some intrigue.
In 35 games in 2017–18 (all of them post-Corey Crawford), Gustafsson posted a 55.4 CF%, good for second among all Hawks D-men in that category, behind Cody Franson (58.44 in 23 games). Couple that with his 54.0 CF% in 2015–16 over 41 games and you have a D-man with a cumulative 54.7 CF% over 76 games. That’s a pretty good start.
Additionally, Gustafsson’s xGF% last year sat at a robust 52.78, meaning that the Hawks could expect to score more than their opponent when he was on the ice. Even better, Gustafsson’s Rel xGF% was an obscene 8.42, meaning the Hawks were 8%+ more likely to score as a function of Gustafsson’s presence. Small sample sizes be damned, those numbers portend potential at the very least.
It’s important to look at whom Gustafsson played with to get those numbers. Last year saw Gustafsson skate a glut of his time next to Brent Seabrook and behind the Patrick Kane line, which you may have deduced based on his 57.4 oZS%. And really, it’s been that way his entire 76-game career: Gustafsson has skated with Seabrook and Kane more than anyone else.
Gustafsson also contributed a bit on the power play, which is where he has the potential to be most intriguing. In just over 49 minutes of PP time, Gustafsson racked up four assists—two primary and two secondary. For comparison, it took Keith almost 213 minutes to rack up two goals, three primary assists, and five secondary assists. It took Seabrook 171 minutes to post two goals, one primary assist, and five secondary assists. So, the rate at which Gustafsson contributes PP points vastly exceeds the rates Keith and Seabrook—Q’s go-to guys on the PP—contribute. Granted, the sample sizes are askew, but it’s something interesting to consider, since the Hawks PP has been beaten around the head with an oversized marital aid the past two years.
Of course, Gustafsson did all of this while spending nearly 60% of his time in the offensive zone. And there are legitimate questions about his defensive abilities: Namely, does he have any? But some of the fancier numbers show that he might not be a total loss on defense. His HDCF%—the measure of high-danger chances for vs. high-danger chances against—was 51.03% last year. His CF% Rel was a robust 6.6. And his 2:1 giveaway/takeaway ratio at 5v5 was the best among Hawks defensemen (Keith, Murphy, and Forsling were the only other D-men who had ratios under 3:1, not counting Franson).
Make no mistake: Gustafsson is an offensive defenseman. But he’s not the worst defender the Hawks have ever seen. With the right pairing and more exposure, the Hawks might have an advantage in Gustafsson’s offensive skills.
It Was the Best of Times: Best-case scenario, you pair Connor Murphy and Gustafsson, which essentially makes them your top pairing. This creates another problem regarding whom to pair Keith with, but pairing Gustafsson with Murphy gives him more range to be creative with the puck and start rushes with the Nick Schmaltz line while Murphy hangs back. I don’t have any proof of this other than my eyes, but Gustafsson and Kane look to have natural chemistry on the ice.
In this scenario, Gustafsson is your PP1 unit’s QB. For nearly a decade, we’ve screamed into the rain about how for all of Keith’s greatness, he’s never been much of a PP QB. Handing the reins to Gustafsson can’t possibly make the PP worse, and it has an added bonus of relieving Keith of his duties, giving his legs a couple hundred minutes of desperately needed rest.
With more time and more responsibilities, Gustafsson becomes a 40-point contributor and puts the Hawks’s PP in the Top 10 for the first time since 2015–16.
It Was the BLURST of Times: Quenneville’s galaxy brain does what it did to Gustav Forsling and uses Gustafsson as a defensive defenseman alongside Jan Rutta. Gustafsson struggles horribly, and halfway through the year, the Hawks trade Gustafsson to St. Louis for the rights to install three Imo’s stands in the concourse where Bobby Hull pisses and pukes on himself when he’s not on camera. He goes on to score 20 points in 30 games, vaulting the Blues to the playoffs. He proceeds to develop into Duncan Keith Lite, spending the rest of his career assisting Vladimir Tarasenko and posting 30–45 points regularly.
Prediction: Gustafsson plays most of his time on the second pairing with Seabrook, but moonlights with Keith for a few small stretches. Barring injury, he contributes 25–30 points over 75 games, most of which come playing with the Schmaltz line. He splits time with Seabrook as the PP2 QB and still manages to contribute 10 PP points.
Of course, Quenneville finds a reason not to like him at some point, and there are spots where Brandon Manning plays instead of him, especially in games when Gustafsson posts a 60+ CF% but happens to be on the ice when, I don’t know, Artem Anisimov pukes all over himself in the neutral zone, leaving Gustafsson alone to defend a 4 on 1.
I think Erik Gustafsson will be good. I sincerely believe that he has Top 4 potential (though he’d be the fourth man in the Top 4). I think I’m the only one here who believes that.
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