Erik Gustafsson admits he’s anxious about it all.
The 23-year-old defenseman has made it this far in the Blackhawks’ training camp. The days leading up to the regular season are dwindling, and the roster numbers are doing the same. So he’s always wondering: am I staying with the Blackhawks or am I heading to Rockford?
“I’d be lying if I’m saying I’m not nervous,” Gustafsson said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m nervous that I’ll wake up in the morning and get that call where you get sent down to Rockford. I’m just going one day at a time; hopefully I’ll be here to premiere next week.”
For players who are on the bubble of making this team, the next few days are a mix of excitement and apprehension. There aren’t many spots: there’s one, maybe two among the forwards and with Michal Rozsival likely not ready to start the season, one on defense. Nevertheless, competition is high. Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg could compete for an early season chance on defense. Kyle Baun, Ryan Hartman and Vincent Hinostroza are among the prospective forwards still here.
For those vying for one of those spots, it’s been difficult to balance the emotions these last few days.
“Obviously [you’re] a little nervous because you definitely want to be here. But it’s a cool and exciting time,” Baun said. “The season’s just around the corner. I’m just trying to come here every day and do my job and hopefully get better and hopefully that equals me making it.”
Some Blackhawks who have been here for some time can relate to the feelings.
“It’s nice to have that where they give you the call and say, ‘You can look for a place.’ For the other times, when a guy comes around, calls us and tells us to meet in the office, you know it’s not good,” Bryan Bickell said. “It [was] three or four times where I had to go down and work on my game in the minors, but it just fuels the drive to make that next step. That’s the hardest step, from the AHL to the NHL.”
Coach Joel Quenneville said he’s not talking to the “bubble” guys on an individual basis – “it’s not a discussion you have ongoing because we’re still watching everybody and things will be sorted out,” he said. The final decision could partially be about money; if the Blackhawks don’t make another trade prior to the season, they’ll be right up against the cap. But it’s also about the work done on the ice; and any player who shows versatility, especially among the forwards, helps his cause.
“I’m sure they don’t care which position they play as opposed to being here. Everyone would like to do what they can and play whatever position you put them in. Certain guys may be more compatible in a certain area,” Quenneville said. “At center, with Teuvo [Teravainen] being there right now, there aren’t a lot of options there. But I don’t mind guys being able to play the middle as well and take faceoffs along the way. For some, that versatility could come into the decision making on some players.”
Until decisions are made, those players waiting to find out their fate are staying distracted. From doing extra workouts to catching movies to taking a nap, anything that keeps their mind worry free is beneficial.
“It’s definitely stressful when you’re here. When I’m home, I’m taking a couple of courses; I’m finishing school, so that helps take your mind off it,” said Baun, who signed with and joined the Blackhawks after his junior year at Colgate. “You see a movie. A few of us went [Tuesday] to see Black Mass. So that was a good way to take your mind off things and just relax a little bit.”
The moviegoers included Hinostroza, Hartman and Garret Ross. So any talk of the competition/nervousness come up?
“Maybe a little bit, just kind of seeing where everyone’s at,” Baun said. “But we’re trying to distract ourselves from even thinking about it, so usually we don’t talk too much about hockey when we’re away from the rink.”
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Bickell said players have to approach this the right way: even if they don’t stick right now, they obviously made a good enough impression to be here this long. And they can build off that.
“Those guys have had good camps and any one of them could be in that spot,” he said. “I’ve had that a couple times where I got the call that I was going back down, but it gave me more drive to work up and get ready for that call-up or the next year. They’re still young; they have time to improve and grow their game. They’ve been playing well and I know they’re nervous, but they can take positives out of this.”
There are only a few days and two preseason games remaining in training camp. And those days will be nervous ones for those players waiting to see if they make it. They obviously want to be here but they’ll prepare for whatever news they get. And if they don’t start here, they’ll be working to get here as fast as they can.
“If I got the call that I got sent down, then I’ve just got to work hard down there too and take a chance that they call me back here,” Gustafsson said. “I’m for sure going to be mad [if not here next week], but I’ll try to take every day I’m here to do some good work.”