The Blackhawks addressed their current defensive depth issues by bringing back a familiar face Monday, signing Erik Gustafsson to a one-year contract with an $800,000 salary cap hit.
But as much as general manager Stan Bowman loves reacquiring former Hawks, this particular reunion seemed to have far more to do with Gustafsson’s familiarity with coach Jeremy Colliton, who has known him since the 2017-18 AHL season.
“He’s seen my worst games [and] my best games, and he’s talking to me a lot,” Gustafsson said. “He probably talked to me four or five times today. We know each other a lot, so that’s one [reason] I wanted to come back here.”
“It’s nice to not have to build a new relationship and get a guy totally up to speed,” Colliton said. “There’s things he’s going to need — we’re going to get him understanding what we’re doing — but it’ll be a lot quicker process than it would otherwise be.”
Gustafsson’s addition rounded out the Hawks’ opening 23-man roster, which was finalized Monday.
The final moves were assigning goalies Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia — who both cleared waivers — to the AHL, placing defensemen Caleb Jones (expected to miss six weeks with a wrist injury) on long-term injured reserve and placing Wyatt Kalynuk (two-to-four weeks with an ankle injury) and Alec Regula (out since Sept. 27 with back injury) on normal injured reserve. Philipp Kurashev and MacKenzie Entwistle were also sent to the AHL in paper moves to become cap compliant; they’ll be recalled Tuesday.
Jones and Kalynuk’s injuries created the need for a depth supplement like Gustafsson, even though he may start as a healthy scratch with Riley Stillman and Ian Mitchell being the projected third pair.
The 29-year-old Swede has bounced around extensively since the Hawks traded him to the Flames for a third-round pick in February 2020.
He spent much of last season in Philadelphia, but said he and Flyers coach Alain Vigneault didn’t get along well. He ended the year with the Canadiens, appearing sparingly during their playoff run. He was playing out a training camp tryout with the Islanders when Bowman called Friday to convey the Hawks’ interest.
“It feels like I’ve been gone for the pandemic and come back,” Gustafsson said. “You know all the guys, you know the whole facility, you know the United Center, you know the city. [I can] just focus on hockey right away and not think about other stuff.”
Gustafsson hopes to rekindle his incredible if fluky 2018-19 season when he erupted for an absurd 60 points (17 goals and 43 assists) in 79 games, ranking sixth among all NHL defensemen in scoring.
He joked that playing with Patrick Kane was how he was able to do it — and indeed, Kane was on the ice for 42 of those points — but Gustafsson showed the potential to produce nicely in a sheltered role that masks his defensive deficiencies.
“I moved my feet a lot and played strong every play [that year],” he said. “I know I can do it again… Maybe not 60 points, but I know I can produce.”
Gustafsson might get a look this October as the second power play unit quarterback — Kalynuk was in that spot before he got hurt — but he likely won’t receive nearly as much playing time as he did in 2018-19.
He’s a stopgap option for now, and he’ll have to excel to avoid being waived himself when others get healthy again.
“Nothing has been promised as far as what exactly his role is going to be, but we do think he can help,” Colliton said. “How much he plays will be based on his performance.”