When Erik Gustafsson was sent back to Rockford in mid-November, he knew he was in good standing with the Blackhawks.
He had showed great calm, defense and passing in his first stint in Chicago. Gustafsson impressed the Blackhawks, so there was no doubt they saw him in their future plans. Now it looks like Gustafsson’s not only part of the Blackhawks again, but could be a very big part of their defense moving forward.
Gustafsson, recalled by the Blackhawks on Dec. 28, looks to be getting more of a role with the team this time. When asked last week if Gustafsson could be an every-game player, coach Joel Quenneville said, “we’ll give him a shot.” Gustafsson played the last two games — the Blackhawks rotated veterans Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi in and out of the lineup — and was paired with Brent Seabrook for part of the game against Colorado.
The Blackhawks have liked what Gustafsson has done in both stints.
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“He made a real good impression initially with us, going back [to Rockford] and playing well, continuing to progress in his game. We think he can help us in a lot of ways,” Quenneville said. “He’s gotten significant minutes as he’s progressed but the two games you noticed him on the ice with his involvement, his play with the puck, with his gap and joining the rush as well as defending. That’s where we can make some progression. Offensively he adds a nice component to the back end.”
As for that pairing with Seabrook, Quenneville said, “we liked that tandem and hopefully there’s something there.”
Gustafsson didn’t sweat his reassignment in November. It was more of a numbers game than anything: Duncan Keith and Rozsival were coming off long-term injured reserve, leaving the Blackhawks with a glut of defensemen. But Gustafsson got good reviews from Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman.
“They said good stuff about my game up here,” Gustafsson said. “They just told me I had to play a lot of minutes in Rockford, stay positive and work as hard as I could down there. I think I did that down there, tried to show them every day that I can come up again if someone’s hurt or anything.”
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“Anything” came at the end of December, when David Rundblad was placed on waivers. Whether the trust wasn’t there or if there was another reason, Rundblad didn’t crack the lineup much. So in came Gustafsson, who has also gotten time on the power play. That says a lot.
“You don’t put D on the power play if the coaches don’t trust you,” Gustafsson said. “I’m just glad to get the opportunity to play there. I hope the coaches trust me when they see me out there. I just want to show they can trust me.”
The Blackhawks have liked what they’ve seen from Gustafsson from the start. Earlier this season he didn’t fit due to numbers, both roster and salary cap. Now he does, and he’s fitting in with every situation he’s been given.
“There aren’t a lot of guys who get called up twice in their first year, so I’m glad to get the opportunity and glad to get the second callback,” Gustafsson said. “I’m just glad to be out there, to help the team as much as I can. I hope they see that, too.”