Hawks' Gustafsson notches first goal of season, hopes it ignites his offense
One goal, 6 assists.
Believe it or not, that was the extent of Erik Gustafsson's offensive contribution to the Blackhawks at this time last year.
As most of you know, the defenseman would go on to finish with 17 goals and 43 assists, leading many to believe he would pick up where he left off and come charging out of the gate this season.
Of course, that's not at all what happened.
"It's a funny game and confidence is a funny thing," coach Jeremy Colliton said.
Gustafsson finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 campaign during the Hawks' 5-3 victory over Vegas on Wednesday. It came 4:54 into the second period when he skated to the middle of the offensive zone, accepted a pass from Dylan Strome and wristed a shot that beat Marc-Andre Fleury to the glove side.
"Oh, it felt great," Gustafsson said after the Hawks practiced in Nashville on Friday. "In the first four or five games I had maybe four or five great opportunities and I just didn't get it into the back of our net.
"I remember I felt that (way) last year. I think I had my first goal this time of year too (it was actually his second), and after that ... I was more confident when I got into those situations in front of the net."
A decent chunk of Gustafsson's production last season came on the power play, where he notched 4 goals and 14 of his 43 assists.
This season, though, his thought process completely changed, especially when he was on the top PP unit with Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Strome.
Instead of looking to shoot after a faceoff win, Gustafsson was feeding the puck to the wingers. It allowed the penalty killers to sag into the middle and take away Kane and DeBrincat's deadly one-timers.
Since being a healthy scratch at Los Angeles on November 2, Gustafsson has been moved to the second power-play unit and is showing much more willingness to fire the puck on net. A big reason for this is because he is out there with the 6-foot-2, 179-pound Dominik Kubalik and the 6-1, 206-pound Brandon Saad.
"This power play we have a little bit more than two guys in front of the net," Gustafsson explained. "If we can just get the puck in front, we always have a 2-on-1 ... or a 3-on-2. My job is just get the puck through and get an opportunity to score from the blue line, or get the puck close to the net so we can have Saader or Kubalik in front to fight for the rebounds."
There's no doubt one of Gustafsson's priorities coming into the season was to be better in his own end, and he admitted it affected his offensive mentality.
And while the 27-year-old has improved defensively, there are still plenty of ugly moments. A perfect example came during a 5-4 victory over Toronto on Sunday when Gustafsson fumbled with the puck for far too long, leading to a turnover and a third-period goal that nearly sparked the Maple Leafs to a comeback victory.
That's the type of play that's going to happen with the fourth-year pro, however. His team knows that going in and has to accept it on some level.
Of course, it's a lot easier to accept when he's igniting things the other way.
"He's a guy that needs to make plays in order to feel like he's giving to the team," Colliton said before the Hawks left for Vegas. "The last few games he just looks more comfortable. He's not trying to do too much with the puck.
"But sometimes when you're so focused on not making a mistake, you don't do anything with it. That's the balance you need to play in the league and be a good player. I think he's getting back to that."
As for getting back to 17 goals, Gustafsson doubts that will ever happen again.
"Last year was probably the only time I scored over 8 goals," he said. "So I didn't expect (to score 17). I was maybe expecting to score a couple goals, but not be up there around 15 or 20.
"You want to be there, but it's tough. Last year I think I had a couple of lucky bounces."
Tale of two seasonsErik Gustafsson scored 16 of his 17 goals in his final 58 games last season. Here's a closer look at his numbers:
GP G A Pts. Shots/G
21 1 6 7 1.86
58 16 37 53 2.09
GP - Games played