Montreal Canadiens: Erik Gustafsson High Risk, High Reward Addition

There’s a lot to like about the Montreal Canadiens final acquisition of the 2021 trade deadline. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson.

A native of the small town of Nynashamn, Sweden, Gustafsson has gone through quite the journey to get to the NHL, and since then has developed a reputation as one of the more reckless, yet similarly dangerous two-way defenseman in the league. Originally a fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2012, Gustafsson was never signed to an entry level deal by the Oil, as he migrated over to Frolunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League.

Playing alongside a number of current NHLers like Florida Panthers forward Alexander Wennberg and Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg, Gustafsson showed his potential as an intriguing NHL option with consistent, reliable defensive play, posting seasons of 20 and 29 points respectively, reaching a high of +22 in the 2014-15 season. Following this, and with the Oilers not retaining Gustafsson rights, the Chicago Blackhawks opted to sign the 6’00 tall blueliner to a two-year deal in April of 2015.

While he would spend the majority of the next three seasons with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, as the Hawks cup window closed and they began to move on from their veteran core, Gustafsson found himself with more opportunities and playing time, and didn’t disappoint. Following a solid 16 points over 35 games in a late-season audition in 2017-18, Gustafsson truly came into his own in 2018-19, and this is likely where most fans and analysts alike became familiar with him.

While the Hawks struggled over the course of the season as their goaltending began to falter in spite of an immensely impressive offense, Gustafsson found instant chemistry with Franchise cornerstone Duncan Keith on the backend, posting a remarkable 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) over 79 games. Needless to say, such a performance came completely and totally out of left field for both Gustafsson and the Blackhawks, and he suddenly became an intriguing part of the team’s future, setting a trend for the Hawks success with overseas acquisitions (Dominik Kubalik, Kevin Lankinen, Pius Suter, etc.)

Playing on a two-year deal worth $2.4 million signed back in July of 2017, the 2019-20 season would determine his future in Chicago, and well, things didn’t exactly go as planned. While he still produced a respectable 26 points over his first 59 games, Chicago opted to swap Gustafsson at that year’s trade deadline, sending him to the Calgary Flames for a conditional sixth round pick. Following the conclusion of a short-lived playoff run with Calgary, Gustafsson signed with the Philadelphia Flyers this past October, on a one-year deal worth $3 million.

With the Flyers enduring a surprisingly rough season off the back of a dreadful performance from starter Carter Hart, Gustafsson has been swapped once more, now finding himself with another chance to prove himself in Montreal. Much of the hype and anticipation surrounding Gustafsson’s arrival with the Canadiens, is expectedly that 60-point season, and Habs fans have every right to be excited by the proposition of that.

Following his acquisition at the 2021 trade deadline, Montreal Canadiens fans have a reason to be excited about defenseman Erik Gustafson.

While he had produced a less than spectacular 10 points over 24 games thus far this season with Philadelphia, Gustafsson has a tremendous amount of upside to his game, and at his core, is reliable defensively above anything else, when not taking risks, which ties into the main thing to consider regarding’s Gustafsson’s play. No NHL defenseman nowadays puts up 60 points in a season without taking a few risks, and his -6 rating in the 2018-19 season would suggest that Gustafsson is a bit of a risk taker. In the offensive zone, he tends to roam around the circle and jump up into the slot, and off the rush has absolutely no problem jumping up into the play, and sometimes in front of the play. Couple this with a stellar release and surprisingly soft hands for his frame, and there’s a lot to like about what Gustafsson brings to the table.

In that same sense though, there’s still the negative aspect of jumping up in the play with such frequency, and that’s being caught flat footed/out of position on a subsequent odd man rush. While his speed is often able to compensate for it, Gustafsson plays his best when he’s paired with a reliable, stay at home defenseman. With former first pairing mainstay Ben Chiarot out for the foreseeable future with a broken hand, and third pairing option Victor Mete having been claimed by the Ottawa Senators, Gustafsson should see an extended role with the Canadiens as we head into what should be an important final half of the season, with the Canadiens having a significant leg up on the fourth and final divisional playoff spot.

While the loss of Chiarot and Mete is less than ideal, the addition of Gustafsson and veteran defenseman Jon Merrill should make up for it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re paired together outright. If not though, look for Gustafsson to potentially join Weber on the first pairing, giving the 35-year-old blueliner a chance to stay back and get back to the style of hockey he’s most successful with.

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While he brings a lot of risks to the table, there’s also a lot of reward to Gustafsson’s play, and a quick look at him should have Habs fans thinking back to the Marc Andre Bergeron’s and James Wisniewski’s of yesteryear. While its been an on and off few games for the Canadiens, their Monday night win over the Toronto Maple Leafs is reason for optimism, and following a successful trade deadline overall, Erik Gustafsson could be another reason why.