LOS ANGELES — Erik Gustafsson knew going into the 2019-20 season that this was an important year for him, individually. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and he's coming off a campaign in which he recorded 60 points, a mark only five other defensemen accomplished.
There are no concerns about his offensive ability. It's the defensive part of his game that the coaching staff has always wanted him to improve upon.
The challenge for Gustafsson has been developing a defense-first mentality while not taking away from his offensive instincts, and perhaps he finds himself caught in the middle. Gustafsson has four points — all assists — through 11 games this season and his ice time average is down from 22:35 last season to 19:54 this season.
And after being on the ice for two of the three goals against in Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Nashville, Gustafsson will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season when the Blackhawks visit the Kings on Saturday.
"Of course I'm frustrated, I want to play," said Gustafsson, who averaged nearly a point per game after his healthy scratch last season on Dec. 2. "But you look at last year and it might be a good thing, I don't know. But I've got to be better out there, that's all it is. I know that too."
Gustafsson has been on the ice for 12 goals for and seven against at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick, and his +5 differential actually ranks first on the team.
But his scoring chances against per 60 minutes of 32.7 ranks third-worst on the team and his high-danger chances against of 16.1 ranks second-worst. That's noteworthy because 74.2 percent of his zone starts have come in the offensive zone, which is by far the highest number of any Blackhawks defenseman.
"Defensively, got to be harder," Gustafsson said. "That's it. With the puck and the power play too, I don't think I created a lot. So I need to be better overall."
Gustafsson was a huge reason why the power play had so much success last season, but the production hasn't been there this season. The Blackhawks are in a 0-for-21 drought and have the third-worst conversion rate at 9.1 percent.
Gustafsson admitted that the lack of power-play success has spilled into his overall confidence and head coach Jeremy Colliton acknowledged it too. But it's not an either or when it comes to Gustafsson's offense vs. defense. The Blackhawks want his game to round out in every aspect.
"We think he can be better in both areas," Colliton said. "He'll get feedback and it's up to him to respond."
Gustafsson is trying to stay focused on himself and dismissed the notion that his contract year could be weighing on his mind. But it probably doesn't help psychologically that the Blackhawks surprisingly called up top defenseman prospect Adam Boqvist, who will immediately slide into a first-pairing role with Duncan Keith and quarterback the second power-play unit in his NHL debut.
Gustafsson wants to be a Blackhawk beyond this season, but he also understands some of it is beyond his control. What he can control, however, is his own game and that's what he'll continue to emphasize.
"Of course you've got some pressure on you," Gustafsson told NBC Sports Chicago during training camp. "You did a great job last year but I think I have a lot to improve to. If I want to sign here I got to improve my defensive part. It's nothing that worries me, I just got to go out there and show that I can play and that I want to be here and stay in the NHL and stuff like that.
"The contract situation ... I'm not nervous about it. If I have a great season here hopefully Chicago re-signs me or 30 other teams but I want to stay here and see how it goes."
BLACKHAWKS: Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.