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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