Erik Gustafsson and his agent were weighing Gustafsson’s options last spring.
The defenseman was either going to stay in Sweden another year or sign with the Blackhawks. The latter had one caveat: What if he signed and there was no spot available for a while on the usually deep Blackhawks roster?
“But we talked a lot and thought, if you do take a spot on this team, you’ll have a lot of guys who will help you a lot and stuff like that,” Gustafsson said. “I think it paid off here a little bit.”
Gustafsson is in the same situation as a few other young Blackhawks this season. Whether it’s due to the offseason changes or some in-season trades/injuries, they’re getting great opportunities to help the Blackhawks maintain their recent level of success. Be it Gustafsson, Phillip Danault, Artemi Panarin, Dennis Rasmussen or others, the opportunity has been seized.
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With Panarin, there was no doubt he was going to play with the Blackhawks this season. Same with Trevor van Riemsdyk, who came back for the Stanley Cup Final but was otherwise sidelined a good deal of the season with injuries. Others entered the season figuring it would take time to get up here. Gustafsson started the season with the Rockford IceHogs. So did Danault and Rasmussen. One by one, each got an opportunity.
And they’re all still here.
“It’s awesome to be here. It’s what you want, and now you’re here and you want to stick with the team and go for the Cup,” Rasmussen said. “At the same time you take it day by day. I try to prove myself every day.”
Coach Joel Quenneville said the young guys have stepped up when necessary.
“We’ve had a number of guys earlier on in the year who are getting a chance to play. It’s been a number of guys from Rockford who have come in and gotten their turn. Some of them seized the opportunity to play here, but they’ve made a difference,” Quenneville said. “Some guys are getting quality ice time as we’ve gone along here.”
Players, especially young, unproven players, get that ice time thanks in large part to performance. It’s also about trust. The thought that Quenneville doesn’t trust young players is foolish: Quenneville has given young guys extra ice time and/or responsibilities if they’ve shown they’re capable of handling them. He trusted van Riemsdyk immediately last season. This season, Gustafsson is averaging about 16 minutes per game and is part of the Blackhawks’ power play. Van Riemsdyk has become part of the penalty kill.
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You could include Teuvo Teravainen, too; Teravainen filled the top-line center role when Jonathan Toews was out against Colorado and got a shot at left wing when Artemi Panarin missed his first game on Tuesday. He’s also logged power play and penalty kill time.
“Of course, you want a coach that trusts you and believes in you when you’re out there,” Gustafsson said. “I just want to show them all the time that they can trust me out there.”
Andrew Desjardins, who’s played with Danault and Teravainen for several weeks, has been impressed with how young players have worked their way into the lineup.
“Honestly, I can’t say anything but good things about these guys,” Desjardins said. “It seems like they’re veterans already the way they prepare themselves and the way they play the game. It’s pretty amazing. I look at myself when I first came into the league, how I felt and how these guys just embraced it real quick and made a difference fast. They did the right things right away.”
The Blackhawks knew they were going to have to rely on some up-and-coming guys this season. Some have worked a few years in Rockford before getting this chance. Some signed this offseason in the hopes of earning an opportunity. For several, it’s worked out well.
“It’s definitely a fun situation to come into," van Riemsdyk said. “You have so many guys who have such long résumés with so many great accomplishments on there. It’s so nice to learn from those guys who know exactly what it takes. It’s a real privilege and honor to be a small part of this team. Every day I think of how lucky I am to be a part of this.”