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Blackhawks

Erik Gustafsson is a confident player with the puck. He always has been. But it took a little bit for him to really flourish in North America, like all young defensemen as they get accustomed to the pro game.

After appearing in 41 games with the Blackhawks in 2015-16 and recording 14 assists, Gustafsson spent all of 2016-17 with the Rockford IceHogs fine-tuning his overall game in the American Hockey League. He started the 2017-18 season there as well, where he continued to develop as a top-four defenseman.

Last January, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman went and saw Gustafsson in Rockford and came away with one takeaway.

“He just totally controlled the game,” Bowman said.

Now we’re seeing it at the NHL level after it led to a permanent call-up.

Gustafsson’s fake-shot, slap-pass to Patrick Kane for the eventual game-winning goal in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks was just another example of that. He executed a similar play earlier in the season with Alex DeBrincat in overtime. That doesn’t happen if you're confidence isn't at a high level.

“Oh yeah, it is,” Gustafsson said. “It feels more fun to play right now and I feel better and faster, too. I worked good this offseason. Coming back here and camp, and felt confident right from the start.”

He looks bigger and faster because his confidence is way more noticeable this season than it was last. Gustafsson has seen his year-to-year ice time average go from 15:27 to 18:33 to 20:45 and his offensive role continues to increase, as he’s become a go-to guy in a trailing situation and on the power play.

 

In nine games this season, Gustafsson has one goal and four assists for a points-per-game rate of .55. He had 30 points (five goals, 25 assists) in his previous 76 games combined for a PPG rate of .39.  

"Offensively, he pushes the pace of our team game," coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's involved with a lot of rush attacks, he has patience with the puck in the offensive point and good play recognition. Defensively, he's improved. ... His game overall has improved this year and is reflected in more minutes."

When Gustafsson is on the ice at even strength, the Blackhawks have generated 106 scoring chances and 47 high-danger chances, according to naturalstattrick.com. That's the most out of any player on the team.

Basically, he's turning into a difference-maker on the back end in terms of driving possession and it's crucial to the offensive success because the Blackhawks didn't get much production from their defensemen last season. He's done that by building on his strengths rather than focusing on his weaknesses.

"That was a big issue the first two years I was here," Gustafsson said. "I learned from that and take it with me, and when I do something bad, I just try to focus on the next shift."