Erik Gustafsson

Erik Gustafsson on his first NHL fight and Blackhawks reaction to it

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USA Today

Erik Gustafsson on his first NHL fight and Blackhawks reaction to it

Towards the latter stages of the second period in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Sabres, Alex Nylander received a pass at the Buffalo blue line and fed it to Jonathan Toews, who nearly connected with Brandon Saad that would've put the Blackhawks up 3-0. Then the whistle blew.

Penalty? Injured player?

Nope. 

A scrap ensued in the neutral zone and Chicago's eyes lit up once it became clear which player got involved: Erik Gustafsson, who had zero career NHL fights before dropping the gloves with Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey. So what the heck happened?

"I don't know, I felt like he was coming late," Gustafsson said. "Got his hands up in my face when he hit me and kind of crosschecked him after and he slashed me. I didn't say anything, I was just looking at him, he looked at me and we dropped 'em."

It's easy to figure out what Vesey was trying to accomplish. The Blackhawks had just scored to make it 2-0 and he's looking to change the momentum of the game.

The surprising part was the fact Gustafsson engaged, which he normally doesn't do unless it's warranted. It threw his teammates and everyone on the bench off guard because he's not known to be a physical player.

As soon as the fight began, the TV cameras panned to Saad on the ice and the confused look on his face told the story.

"I haven't talked to him about it yet," a laughing Gustafsson said. "I have to go ask him why he looked so surprised. It was kind of funny, I got to show him that too."

Said head coach Jeremy Colliton: "I didn't see what happened before. I just saw he was fighting and I just, you know ... wondered what could have happened. But, hey, you've got to stick up for yourself."

The only other fights Gustafsson has had in his professional career came with the Rockford IceHogs during the 2016-17 season. He dropped the gloves twice, and both came against Manitoba Moose forward J.C. Lipon, who's profile on hockeyfights.com is significantly longer than Gustafsson's. Each of those scraps started because Gustafsson was unhappy with a hit that was laid on him.

Gustafsson was credited with the takedown in both of those fights against Lipon, but he didn't have as much luck against Vesey.

"Your adrenaline is going up pretty quick," Gustafsson said. "I wanted to keep going there but he dragged me down hard. But it was good to have the first one."

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Erik Gustafsson is back to looking like player he was last season for Blackhawks

Erik Gustafsson is back to looking like player he was last season for Blackhawks

Less than three weeks ago, Erik Gustafsson fell out of the rotation for the Blackhawks. The offensive production wasn’t there and the defensive part of his game was trending in the wrong direction.

Since being healthy scratched on Nov. 2 against Los Angeles, Gustafsson has looked like a different player. He’s starting to resemble the impact-type player he was last season when he became one of six NHL defensemen to finish with at least 60 points.

And it’s because he’s getting back to his roots.

“I don’t know how, from a scratch, my confidence can get up so fast but I feel like myself a little bit more now,” Gustafsson told NBC Sports Chicago. “I got a video guy that I worked with last year and working with him right now and went back and looked at those videos a couple days ago and it's just a whole other player from last year and now. I just wanted to come back to that moment. I felt like I was having fun out there and not thinking too much.

“I think my defensive part is better than last year but I just want to get back to when I have the puck and I've felt pretty good now the past four games, so let's keep it going."

Gustafsson said that after morning skate on Wednesday. He followed it up by scoring his first goal of the season later that night in a 5-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, roofing a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury to end a 16-game goal drought.

“He just looks much more confident with the puck,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He’s cleaner. He still has a couple turnovers here and there but he’s going to turn it over every once in a while. We just want him to try to be as clean as he can and situationally manage when he’s going to try and do those things.”

It helps that Gustafsson is back to earning top minutes, which he admitted is beneficial because if he has a bad shift he doesn’t have to dwell on it too long. But Colliton is trying walk the line of giving Gustafsson enough rope to make mistakes while also holding him responsible for his play.

“It’s a balance,” Colliton said. “Because you’ve got to earn the minutes you get and if you’re not doing the job then your minutes will go down. But at the same time, I don’t believe that if you make one mistake you should get the hook. That’s a tough way to play when you’re always worried if I make one mistake, you’re going to be punished for it or whatever it may be. So as a coach, that’s the balance, the line we walk to try to get the most out of every player but also make sure there’s accountability.”

Earlier in the season, Gustafsson was consumed by trying to develop a defense-first mentality without taking away from his offensive instincts. Now he’s gotten back to focusing on the strengths of his game rather than the weaknesses, and it’s allowed him to play looser. 

"I think it was a lot of parts like moving my feet, skating,” Gustafsson said of what he noticed during video sessions of his play last season vs. this season. “It's a big part about my game, too. I have to skate a lot. Last year when I got a guy on me I just faked going one side and went to the other side and just skated and tried to find that open lane to pass it. And I think at the start of this season I just wanted to get rid of the puck right away. I don't know if it's just confidence or something, but I think I’m moving my feet much better now than I did my first 10 games."

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Is Erik Gustafsson falling out of favor with Blackhawks?

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Associated Press

Is Erik Gustafsson falling out of favor with Blackhawks?

LOS ANGELES — Erik Gustafsson knew going into the 2019-20 season that this was an important year for him, individually. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and he's coming off a campaign in which he recorded 60 points, a mark only five other defensemen accomplished.

There are no concerns about his offensive ability. It's the defensive part of his game that  the coaching staff has always wanted him to improve upon.

The challenge for Gustafsson has been developing a defense-first mentality while not taking away from his offensive instincts, and perhaps he finds himself caught in the middle. Gustafsson has four points — all assists — through 11 games this season and his ice time average is down from 22:35 last season to 19:54 this season.

And after being on the ice for two of the three goals against in Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Nashville, Gustafsson will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season when the Blackhawks visit the Kings on Saturday.

"Of course I'm frustrated, I want to play," said Gustafsson, who averaged nearly a point per game after his healthy scratch last season on Dec. 2. "But you look at last year and it might be a good thing, I don't know. But I've got to be better out there, that's all it is. I know that too."

Gustafsson has been on the ice for 12 goals for and seven against at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick, and his +5 differential actually ranks first on the team.

But his scoring chances against per 60 minutes of 32.7 ranks third-worst on the team and his high-danger chances against of 16.1 ranks second-worst. That's noteworthy because 74.2 percent of his zone starts have come in the offensive zone, which is by far the highest number of any Blackhawks defenseman.

"Defensively, got to be harder," Gustafsson said. "That's it. With the puck and the power play too, I don't think I created a lot. So I need to be better overall."

Gustafsson was a huge reason why the power play had so much success last season, but the production hasn't been there this season. The Blackhawks are in a 0-for-21 drought and have the third-worst conversion rate at 9.1 percent.

Gustafsson admitted that the lack of power-play success has spilled into his overall confidence and head coach Jeremy Colliton acknowledged it too. But it's not an either or when it comes to Gustafsson's offense vs. defense. The Blackhawks want his game to round out in every aspect.

"We think he can be better in both areas," Colliton said. "He'll get feedback and it's up to him to respond."

Gustafsson is trying to stay focused on himself and dismissed the notion that his contract year could be weighing on his mind. But it probably doesn't help psychologically that the Blackhawks surprisingly called up top defenseman prospect Adam Boqvist, who will immediately slide into a first-pairing role with Duncan Keith and quarterback the second power-play unit in his NHL debut.

Gustafsson wants to be a Blackhawk beyond this season, but he also understands some of it is beyond his control. What he can control, however, is his own game and that's what he'll continue to emphasize.

"Of course you've got some pressure on you," Gustafsson told NBC Sports Chicago during training camp. "You did a great job last year but I think I have a lot to improve to. If I want to sign here I got to improve my defensive part. It's nothing that worries me, I just got to go out there and show that I can play and that I want to be here and stay in the NHL and stuff like that.

"The contract situation ... I'm not nervous about it. If I have a great season here hopefully Chicago re-signs me or 30 other teams but I want to stay here and see how it goes."

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