NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Erik Gustafsson skated up ice and threw another slick pass toward another teammate. This time it was Richard Panik, who capitalized with his first goal with the Blackhawks.
It’s become a habit with Gustafsson, whose defense is coming along but whose offensive side of the game helped him fit in with the Blackhawks immediately. The 23-year-old didn’t make the Blackhawks’ roster out of camp as he had hoped, but he has now become an everyday player for them.
Gustafsson, who’s formed a reliable pair with Brent Seabrook, has eight assists in his 16 games with the Blackhawks this season. So why has the transition looked so easy for the rookie, who’s also new to North American hockey?
“I think mostly it’s how they play…how they want to play,” Gustafsson said of the Blackhawks. “They like to carry the puck; they don’t like to just chip it out all the time. I try to play as simple as I can and try to do my thing out there to make some plays from my own zone, give the forwards a good pass and join the rush as much as I can.”
Seabrook has been impressed by his new partner’s acclimation.
“I think for the age he is, to see his poise and comfort level out there, it’s pretty fun to watch,” he said. “That pass he made [Sunday], the pass was the pass but it was also everything building up to it. He broke up two plays and was able to find some space and find Panner in the middle of the ice there. It’s things like that. He’s a confident kid, he can skate, he has all the tools and can shoot the puck hard. The sky’s the limit.”
Considering some of the plays and passes Gustafsson has made, coach Joel Quenneville said the defenseman has forward-like tendencies.
“He had a good start with the puck in the offensive zone, coming through the middle of the ice, great play recognition on the pass. But his patience level is like a high-end forward,” Quenneville said earlier this week. “It’s pretty good for a defenseman to have that ability, patience and recognition.”
Gustafsson did play forward previously, but he was only seven or eight years old at the time. So apparently the forward-type thinking is just natural.
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“I like to play power play and all that stuff. I like to have the puck on my tape, too, and I like to create some offense for the forwards, too,” he said. “I just like to have the puck.”
Gustafsson was drafted by Edmonton in 2012 but things didn’t work out there, apparently because his defensive game was lacking – “they said I had to work on my defensive play if I wanted to come over,” Gustafsson said. Quenneville said it is still a work in progress with Gustafsson but that his defensive game is improving. That’s fine. The rest of his game is working nicely for him and the Blackhawks.
“He’s a real good addition, breaking out with clean breakout passes, patience with the puck through the middle of the ice,” Quenneville said. “He has a nice shot; he’s not afraid to shoot and make plays. He adds a nice, skilled element to our back end.”