It was only two seasons ago that Erik Gustafsson ranked sixth among NHL defencemen in scoring, posting 17-43-60 totals in 79 games with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Gustafsson ranked third among NHL defencemen in goals that season, trailing only Morgan Rielly (20) and Dougie Hamilton (18), and had 4-14-18 totals on the power play.
Gustafsson’s career has hit some ruts in the ice since then. Last season, he had 6-20-26 totals in 59 games with the Blackhawks before being dealt to the Calgary Flames at the NHL trade deadline in exchange for a third-round draft pick. After posting 0-3-3 totals in seven games with the Flames, Gustafsson signed a one-year, US$3-million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent.
The Flyers were looking for someone to replace defenceman Matt Niskanen after he suddenly announced his retirement in October at age 33. Gustafsson wasn’t able to do that and ended up being a healthy scratch for 17 games with the Flyers, including nine of the last 10 games before he was traded to the Canadiens on Monday in exchange for a seventh-round pick at next year’s draft. In 24 games with the Flyers, Gustafsson had 1-9-20 totals and was minus-2 while averaging 17:24 of ice time.
One of the problems in Philadelphia was that Gustafsson and Shayne Gostisbehere are offensive-minded defencemen and head coach Alain Vigneault didn’t think he could have both in the lineup at the same time. Gostisbehere was a healthy scratch for three games that Gustafsson did play.
“It was a great team, great teammates,” Gustafsson said Wednesday about his time in Philadelphia. “I had a lot of fun to play there. It didn’t work out for me on that team and I’m just looking forward right now to being in Montreal. That’s in my past and I just want to end my season here in Montreal in a good way.”
Gustafsson is actually in Edmonton, where he will spend seven days at a hotel in COVID-19 quarantine before he can join his new teammates. The Canadiens will play the Oilers next Monday and Wednesday in Edmonton.
Acquiring Gustafsson was a good move by Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, it cost almost nothing and Gustafsson is an unrestricted free agent after this season.
The 29-year-old defenceman is confident he can still be the player he was two seasons ago with the Blackhawks.
“I want to be that guy,” he said. “I want to come back to that guy I was and I think, in Montreal, I can be that guy. I think the team in Montreal is very good. They have good all-around players on that team. I’m just happy to be a part of that team and it’s going to be fun to see how far we can go here.”
While Jeff Petry has 11 goals this season, the Canadiens only have 10 goals from the rest of their defencemen, including five from Shea Weber. The Canadiens have also been struggling on the power play recently, going 2-for-25 in their last nine games, including 0-for-2 in Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames.
Gustafsson needs to be paired with a defensive-minded blue-liner and the Canadiens have one in Joel Edmundson, who leads the NHL in plus/minus differential with a plus-28. Bergevin added another one last Sunday when he acquired Jon Merrill from the Detroit Red Wings. While Gustafsson shoots left, he’s comfortable playing on either side and has played mostly on the right side the last three seasons.
Two seasons ago in Chicago, Gustafsson was paired mostly with Duncan Keith.
“Duncan Keith is a hell of a player … he’s a Hall of Famer,” Gustafsson said. “I had the time to play with him and he taught me a lot on the ice, off the ice. He’s a great player in the locker room, too. He talks a lot. He taught me a hell of a lot. He was a great player to play with and he had a lot of success there that he gave to me that season. It was great.
“If I can get my confidence back, I can go back to that player I want to be and play strong without the puck,” Gustafsson added. “Don’t do too much and just trying to be offensive and trying to help the team to win.”
The arrival of Gustafsson and Merrill, along with the return of Ben Chiarot soon from a fractured hand, will heat up the competition for spots on the Canadiens’ blue line, which is a good thing.
“I’ve been watching (the Canadiens) now since I got traded and always had an eye on them, too,” he said. “They’re playing really well right now and it’s a good D core in Montreal. It’s going to be fun to be a part of that. I’m just going to take it step-by-step here and see how it goes. But I’m really happy to be a part of this organization.”
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