Recently, NBCSN Chicago hosted a fan poll, asking the question whether Erik Gustafsson is a legitimate top 4 defenseman or not. While the vote was 98% “no” at one point, it’s almost irrelevant. Fans don’t get to decide the legitimacy of a player. Nor do writers and bloggers.
Players and games do.
My feelings on Gustafsson are fairly well known to those who follow The-Rink or listen to the RinkCast. But like I said, my opinion is just as irrelevant as anyone else who is not (officially) employed by an NHL hockey club.
But the “Gustafsson as top 4 defenseman” debate, in and of itself, is quite telling about the state of the Blackhawks as a competitive NHL team and the evolution of fan expectations over the last 3 seasons.
Gustafsson has been with the Blackhawks organization since the 2015-16 season. He turned 24 during that season, after having played pro hockey in Sweden a handful of seasons. Bookmark that thought.
If you’ll recall, the Blackhawks compiled 103 points that season, tied for third best in the Western Conference, before barely losing a seven-game, first round series to the St. Louis Blues, who finished just above them in the regular season. Gustafsson played 41 games for the Hawks that year, primarily as a depth defenseman, spending the rest of the season in Rockford.
Here’s why this is relevant. And it goes back to the numbskull mentality that holds because a young player makes the roster of a mediocre or bad team coming out of training camp, it must validate the “awesomeness” of the player. To the contrary, it might say more about the relative lack of “awesomeness” of the team.
But we’re not talking about a 19-20 year old making the jump from junior hockey to the NHL here.
Gustafsson’s tenure with the Hawks started when he was 23-24 years old, and therefore at least somewhat a “finished” product. Some will (of course) argue that the coaching of Joel Quenneville, Mike Kitchen, and Ulf Samuelsson has somehow “transformed” or at least drastically elevated Gustafsson from a depth/fringe NHL defenseman to a “#3 defenseman” in the NHL.
Which is laughable. Has he improved? Definitely, he has a lot more confidence offensively. But.
What is more logical, and supported by dispassionately watching Gustafsson and the team play, is that the Hawks overall defense, and especially its depth, has just gotten relatively (a lot) worse since 2015-16.
Niklas Hjalmarsson is gone. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are both 3 years older and now pushing well into their mid-30s.
Another way to look at it: where would short-lived 2015-16 Hawk Trevor Daley slot in on this year’s defense? Even if you believe Gustafsson is the irreplaceable second coming of Bobby Orr, the Daley of three years ago is still a vast improvement over “The Brandons” (Davidson and Manning).
Where would Stanley Cup Champion Michal Kempny slot in? Perhaps more telling, where will Conor Murphy slot in if/when he returns 100% healthy?
I’ll submit that “Gus” is a top 4 defenseman only on a very thin, and perhaps inferior by NHL standards, unit. A “top 4” defenseman by necessity or default—because there’s no one else you can realistically put there.
Now, if you want to debate that, fine. But we’re in subjective territory. I will just say that, in my opinion, a defenseman’s primary role is to . . . defend.
Of course, some of the armchair coaches and GMs out there will throw out Erik Karlsson as an example of a “great” defenseman known primarily for offense. True. However, Karlsson is fairly significantly better than Gustafsson offensively, and his mostly underrated defensive prowess is light years better than Gustafsson’s.
I will be the first to spotlight that Gustafsson looks great coming up the ice with the puck on his blade. He passes very adeptly and creatively, and he can fire the biscuit.
But so did David Rundblad. Though, granted, Gustafsson is a much better skater.
He’s a good offensive player from the back end. But his defensive work in his zone (and sometimes elsewhere) remains somewhere between inconsistent and God-awful.
And Gustafsson by himself is not to blame for this, but it’s pretty clear so far into this season, that this defense unit, as currently composed, may be the worst the Hawks have iced in a decade.
And I will state here what I shared with friends elsewhere, over the weekend: a team with an Erik Gustafsson playing any kind of significant minutes is never going to win a Stanley Cup. He’s just not a good defender, or even adequate in that regard.
Today, at the end of October, with arguably the toughest month of their schedule approaching, the Hawks are essentially a .500 team—6 wins, 3 regulation losses, 3 OT losses—that has probably overperformed overall. Certainly, they will likely not maintain their current offensive production over the course of a full season.
So, in conclusion, it doesn’t matter if Gustafsson is a “top 4 defenseman,” or a “#3,” or if your favorite rookie makes the jump from junior to the NHL—unless the team they play for is a legitimately good and deep NHL team. Some evidence suggests, until proven otherwise, the Hawks are not that team anymore.
But it can be argued, at least, there are 70 games left to disprove it. Time will tell.
All for now, please comment below.