Blackhawks

Blackhawks: 'Forward' thinking paying off Erik Gustafsson

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Blackhawks: 'Forward' thinking paying off Erik Gustafsson

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.

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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.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“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.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

Jimmy Greenfield, Connor McKnight, and Matt Spiegel join Kap on the panel to discuss Corey Crawford back on the ice for the first time in 10 months. The Bears have good news when it comes to Khalil Mack, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.

Plus, Fred Hoiberg announces that Jabari Parker is coming off the bench for the season opener.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”