Coming into this season, we all figured the Blackhawks' defense had the potential to be one giant liability.
Sixty-seven games later, we can confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that the unit remains under construction and must take a quantum leap forward if the Hawks are to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19.
One player Stan Bowman obviously believes in is Erik Gustafsson because the Hawks' GM signed the soon-to-be 26-year-old to a two-year extension Tuesday. It carries a $1.2 million cap hit, according to NHL Network's Mike Kelly.
"I love this city, I love this team and I love the fans over here," said Gustafsson, who would have been a restricted free agent on July 1. "I'm blessed."
The Hawks also signed forward Tyler Sikura to a one-year deal Tuesday. Tyler, the older brother of Dylan Sikura, has been a pleasant surprise for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs and currently leads the team with 16 goals.
Here's the lowdown on each player:
A native of Sweden, the left-shot D-man possesses all kinds of offensive skills and regularly finds Patrick Kane with pinpoint passes when the two are on the ice together.
The rubs on Gustafsson have always been an inability to play a consistent game in his own end and his unnerving habit of taking too many chances at the wrong time. Fixing these traits was considered Job No. 1 for first-year Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton.
"He was on me the first time," Gustafsson told me in January. "'We know you're good. We know you can do (special things) offensively, but you don't have to do it all the time.'
"He got me to think to make the easy play in my own zone and neutral zone."
Ahh, but old habits die hard.
There are still times -- and last week's 7-2 loss at San Jose is a perfect example -- where Gustafsson just can't help himself. Poor decisions against the Sharks led to odd-man rushes, and gave goalie J-F Berube almost no chance to stop wave after wave of ultra-talented forwards
"A couple games I've been that guy that tried to risk it," Gustafsson said. "I try doing the risky play that I don't have to if I move my feet. I try to tell myself every night I've got to move my feet. If I move my feet, I open up another lane."
Colliton raved about Gustafsson's offensive potential earlier this season, and coach Joel Quenneville echoed those thoughts Tuesday. The Hawks certainly need a puck-moving D-man who is a threat to score because their production on the back end has been downright putrid all season.
With another 15 games under his belt and a solid off-season, Gustafsson has an excellent chance to be a big contributor in 2018-19.
For those of you who don't follow the intricate details of the Hawks, you may not know that they are extremely -- and I mean extremely -- high on Dylan Sikura. They drafted Dylan in the sixth round in 2014, and he has excelled in his four years at Northeastern University. Bowman is hoping to sign him as soon as Northeastern's season is over.
As for older brother Tyler, he's a two-way forward who played four years at Dartmouth, and slowly worked his way up from the ECHL to the AHL.
"It's an absolute dream come true," Sikura said after Rockford practiced at the MB Ice Arena. "Did it the hard way. I've played in some of the lower leagues and professional ranks and kind of worked my way into a situation that seemed to be perfect for me. …
"To have a chance to be a phone call away from my ultimate dream is an unbelievable feeling."
Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton said Tyler started at the bottom and wasn't even a lock to make the team out of camp. All he's done since is work his way up the lineup in impressive fashion.
"He's been great and earned everything he's gotten," Colliton said.
After Tyler signed, he called his parents, then FaceTimed with Dylan, his sister and his girlfriend.
Tyler hasn't played on the same team with Dylan since they were on the junior varsity team in high school. As for what it would be like to be Blackhawks together?
"It would be incredible," Tyler said. "It's something that we obviously would love to do. … It would be really nice to lace em up with him."