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Erik Gustafsson laughed when asked if he wished he could sign a contract extension every day.
“Yeah,” he said. “No, I feel grateful for the contract. … I’m blessed.”
Since signing the two-year, $2.4 million deal a week ago, Gustafsson has two goals and four assists in four games. The defenseman, who turns 26 on Wednesday, had one goal and four assists in 18 games before that.
The early January call-up from Rockford had two assists in each of the last two games, including the primary assist on Patrick Kane’s game-winning goal in Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Bruins.
“It’s a coincidence,” Gustafsson said. “Of course I’m more relaxed, but I don’t think it’s anything to do with the contract.”
Gustafsson said he’s just trying to fit in, contribute and be a part of the team’s future as it puts this season in the past. More importantly, he said, he’s trying to rid himself of confidence issues that have plagued him.
His miscue on a neutral-zone turnover in Game 7 of the first-round series against the Blues in 2016 led to the game-winning goal — and led Gustafsson to Rockford for the next season-and-a-half.
Once he was summoned from coach Joel Quenneville’s doghouse, Gustafsson was a healthy scratch the first four games after he was called up. But knowing he’s part of the team’s future has helped erase some of the anxiousness that comes with the uncertainty Gustafsson faced before signing the contract.
“I don’t have to worry about anything now,” he said. “I just try to be myself … (as) I was down in Rockford.”
Down in Rockford, Gustafsson had three goals and 14 assists in 25 games this season. Up in Chicago, he provides the Hawks with some sorely needed offense from the back end, though he has work to do defensively.
Upon signing his deal, Gustafsson vowed to shoot more. He immediately made good on his word that night against the Avalanche, scoring 5 minutes, 8 seconds into a 2-1 overtime victory.
Four days later, in a 7-4 loss to the Bruins, he had a goal and two assists. He could have had two goals had Jonathan Toews not deflected in one of his shots.
“Maybe (I) play my own game a little bit more,” Gustafsson said of the increased production. “I’ve been trying to pass the puck a little bit too much. I can shoot it a little more and create some more offense. I usually don’t score many goals.”
Gustafsson had no goals and 14 assists in 41 regular-season games with the Hawks in 2015-16 and one assist in five postseason games. While scoring isn’t his top priority, Gustafsson hopes to make it a bigger part of his game.
In Quenneville’s eyes, Gustafsson has come a long way since that Game 7 against the Blues, even though it took a long time. Proof of that is in the number of minutes Gustafsson has spent on the power play lately, including 5:16 during Sunday’s victory.
“Offensively he adds a nice ingredient to our team (with) his puck movement, support of the attack, options in the zone,” Quenneville said. “Defensively he’s fine, (but) there’s room there (for improvement). As a team our defense needs to be better than we’ve been.”
The Hawks defense has been a question mark for large chunks of the season, committing turnovers uncharacteristic of seasons past. The Hawks have allowed 206 goals, ninth-most in the league entering Monday.
Gustafsson, though, has been steady while playing primarily with Brent Seabrook. The two have been on the ice together for eight goals for and seven against.
“I think I showed them these last couple of games they can trust me,” Gustafsson said.
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