A potential trade candidate, Erik Gustafsson trying to block out rumors as deadline nears

A potential trade candidate, Erik Gustafsson trying to block out rumors as deadline nears

Erik Gustafsson knew going into the 2019-20 season that this was an important year for him personally. He was coming off a campaign in which he scored a career-high 17 goals and was one of six defensemen to hit the 60-point mark.

And that was just his first full season in the NHL.

Gustafsson emerged as a breakout star, but he felt the pressure heading into the season. He was entering the final year of his two-year contract with the Blackhawks that carries a $1.2 million cap hit and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer for the first time in his career.

But Gustafsson, who turns 28 in March, wasn’t stressing too much about what his next contract could look like. He’s going to get a nice pay raise. It’s whether it’d be in Chicago or elsewhere that’s weighed on his mind.

"I don't know how I can't block it away," Gustafsson told NBC Sports Chicago. "At the start of the year I was nervous going in, if I'm going to sign here or if I'm going to be traded or something like that. I think that just affected my game and I was thinking about that instead of thinking about my game on the ice."

With five defensemen (Calvin de Haan, Duncan Keith, Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy and Brent Seabrook) under contract through the 2021-22 season and Adam Boqvist making the jump to the pros, there’s a logjam on the back end for the Blackhawks and it’s difficult to see where Gustafsson fits into the long-term puzzle.

During the three-day holiday break in December, Gustafsson had a little bit of down time to take his mind off the game. That’s when he had a conversation with his dad about his uncertain future that helped him refocus.

"He told me to not worry about it,” Gustafsson said. “If something happens, it's going to happen. You can't control it. And whatever you can do to help it, it's going to be on the ice, so I kind of felt like I was blocking that out just not thinking about it. It's easy to say but that's kind of what I did and focused on my game. I think I've played better this half of the year than the first half."

It's unclear what the Blackhawks are going to do ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, but if the team continues to trend in the wrong direction leading up to it, Gustafsson's name will surface as a potential candidate to be moved.

If the Blackhawks can turn things around and put together a run that would help their chances of keeping the group together for a playoff push, perhaps GM Stan Bowman will be inclined to do so. That’s the ideal scenario — at least this season — for Gustafsson, who’s made it known he doesn’t want to go anywhere.

"Try to help the team win all the time," Gustafsson said smiling. "I want to stay here, I want to be a part of this team, I want to win a Stanley Cup here. Of course, this month is the deadline, but if I can do what I can do to help this team win I'm going to do it all the time."

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Blackhawks can't match Oilers' intensity as Connor McDavid leads way in Game 2

Blackhawks can't match Oilers' intensity as Connor McDavid leads way in Game 2

Let's be honest: The Blackhawks dominated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1. The final score was 6-4, but there was never a doubt as to which team was in the driver’s seat from start to finish.

So going into Game 2, the Blackhawks knew the Oilers would come out desperate.

"We’d be naïve," head coach Jeremy Colliton said before the game, "if we don’t think they’re going to throw everything they have at us."

And that's what the Oilers did. To be more exact: That's what Connor McDavid did.

After scoring 2:34 into Game 1, the two-time Art Ross Trophy winner scored 19 seconds into Game 2 and then again 3:46 later to give the Oilers a 2-0 lead before the Blackhawks even knew what hit them. He completed the hat trick in the second period, giving him four goals through two games so far.

It was clear from the first shift Game 2 would have a different feeling than Game 1. The Oilers, this time, were in control and they followed No. 97's lead.

"They were much better as a team than they were in Game 1, so give them credit there," Jonathan Toews said following a 6-3 loss on Monday. "And to add to the fact, I don't think we made things as hard on them as we did in the first game. So everything we did in that first game, we've got to step all that team game up a notch.

"McDavid's obviously a focus for me, and when we're not making things hard enough for them offensively, then we get ourselves in spots where we end up taking penalties, and you know what happens on the power play, a guy like McDavid's going to make you play. A couple times early in the game, we give him grade A chances and he's not making any mistakes. You know what we're going to get out of him every game, so we've got to be better on him."

You just knew McDavid wouldn’t let his team fall behind 2-0 in a series that easily, especially as the No. 5 seed in their own building. He certainly looked extra motivated to be a factor at even strength after being shut down in Game 1 — all three of his points came on the power play.

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This was a virtual must-win for the Oilers. Only one team in NHL history has overcome a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series: New York Islanders in 1985 after losing Games 1 and 2 in overtime to the Washington Capitals then rallying to win the next three.

"Connor led the way," Oilers forward Tyler Ennis said. "He set the tone for us and gave us a spark. That's exactly what we needed, and everybody followed."

Credit the Blackhawks for clawing back and showing the kind of resiliency that helped them win Game 1. They fell behind 2-0 and tied it up at 3-3 before McDavid's hat trick put the Oilers back in front 4-3.

The game got away from the Blackhawks in the third period, where they were out-chanced 10-1. But that what was bound to happen for a team that was playing catch-up all game.

In the end, the Blackhawks won't sugarcoat their overall performance. It was no secret the Oilers would come out hungry, and the Blackhawks simply didn't match their intensity.

"Ultimately, we didn’t play to the level we need to to beat this team," Colliton said. "We knew going into this series it would be a challenge. ... It’s a 1-1 series, I’m sure no one picked us to sweep them. They won a game, now we have to find a way to be better on Wednesday, and we will."

Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner kneels with Ryan Reaves during National Anthem

Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner kneels with Ryan Reaves during National Anthem

On Monday, former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner, currently with the Vegas Golden Knights, knelt during the National Anthem with teammate Ryan Reaves before Vegas' round-robin game against the Dallas Stars.

Stars forwards Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson joined Lehner and Reaves in taking a knee.

The Associated Press' Stephen Whyno reported Reaves approached Seguin during pregame warmups to inform him that the Golden Knights teammates intended to kneel during the National Anthem. Seguin told his teammates on Dallas in the locker room and Dickinson wanted to join.

"I made a mistake once, putting a Trump sticker on my mask. That is something I regret now... At the end of the day it's about human rights, not politics," Lehner told the media following the game.

The Golden Knights won the contest 5-3 with Lehner as the starting goalie.

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