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The Case For Scratching Erik Gustafsson and Making a Few Minor Line Tweaks

If the Blackhawks are going to get themselves back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the little things matter. Little mistakes can't continue happening.
Photo: The Canadian Press

Photo: The Canadian Press

With newly acquired defensemanNick Seeler now in the mix, the Blackhawks have seven defensemen on their roster. That leaves one man as the odd man out. After Sunday's deflating loss in Winnipeg, it grew apparent through the game who that one man should be. It is long overdue for Eric Gustafsson to take a seat.

Everyone knows that Erik Gustafsson is not in the game for his defense. Head coach Jeremy Colliton is slotting Gustafsson on his blue line to move the puck, create offense, and run the powerplay. However, it is still important for a defenseman to actually defend. Sunday night brought yet another glaring defensive miscue for Gustafsson, and with every game being important, the Blackhawks simply do not have that margin for error.

Did we just forget to play defense? Gustafsson breaks nearly every rule here for a defenseman. He gets caught watching the puck rather than playing his man. He doesn't get in the passing lane. His stick isn't on the ice. All of that equates to the Jets taking the lead and ultimately taking two points.

All of these games from here on out for the Blackhawks are vitally important. Sunday's game with Winnipeg was one of those four-point games. Had the Hawks hung on to their early 2-0 lead and won in regulation, they would be sitting just one point behind the Jets in the wild card standings. However, with the Jets completing the comeback and winning in regulation, the Hawks now sit five points back of their division opponent.

These errors just simply cannot happen. It would be one thing if they were rare. Mistakes do happen. However, this is more of the norm for Gustafsson. He is simply a liability in his own zone. On a team whose best defenseman (and Gustafsson's partner) is 36 years old with a lot of miles on the tires, you can't afford a liability in your own end. That is exactly what you have in Eric Gustafsson.

Nick Seeler made his Blackhawks debut Sunday night and looked pretty comfortable on the ice. In just his seventh game of the 2019-20 season, the 26-year-old held his own. There were no signs of rust, as Seeler recorded an assist and a fight on the night.

Seeler was filling in for Adam Boqvist after the young defenseman sat out Sunday with a shoulder injury. Colliton made a point that Boqvist probably could have went, but the team was proceeding with caution. You could probably expect Boqvist to return to the lineup tonight in Edmonton, meaning that someone would have to take a seat.

At this point, obviously Duncan Keith is remaining in the lineup and logging top-pair minutes. Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek have formed a respectable pairing, so they should likely stay in the lineup moving forward. Connor Murphy is also a lock in the lineup. That leaves you with Gustafsson and Seeler. After Sunday's game, the choice is clear.

Seeler brings physicality and a steady presence to the back-end. While Gustafsson will bring the team more offense, his poor defensive play is too is simply too big to overcome. Also, Gustafsson only has 25 points on the season. That places him 45th among defensemen, so he isn't exactly lighting the world on fire.

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One of the big reasons Gustafsson remains on the Hawks is his role in quarterbacking their power play. Well, that's a train wreck too. The power play is just as much to blame for the Blackhawks' collapse on Sunday night. The Blackhawks power play is ranked 28th in the NHL, scoring just 15 percent of the time. Where's the value Gustafsson is bringing? It's time to scratch him.

With Gustafsson being replaced by Seeler, the Blackhawks will be in better shape defensively moving forward. They could also improve their offense by making two minor forward line tweaks, involving a couple of bottom-six forwards.

With Alex DeBrincat on the third line, the Blackhawks need viable offensive threats next to the young sniper. David Kampf currently centers a line with DeBrincat and Dylan Strome. Kampf is what you would call the exact opposite of a viable offensive threat.

Kampf tends to play every shift as if it were a penalty kill. That is great and all from a defensive standpoint, as Kampf is as responsible in his own end more than any forward. However, this type of play takes away the threat that DeBrincat brings to the lineup.

Another guy who is defensively responsible, but poses more of an offensive threat is Ryan Carpenter. Carpenter spent some time on Patrick Kane's line earlier in the year and didn't fare too badly. He tends to be more aware of who he is on the ice with. He skates hard, goes to the net and finds the talent on his wing. That could be beneficial to DeBrincat.

Here are the proposed lines moving into Tuesday's game in Edmonton:

  • Kubalik-Toews-Caggiula
  • Saad-Dach-Kane
  • DeBrincat-Carpenter-Strome
  • Nylander-Kampf-Smith

Alex Nylander draws back into the lineup for the Blackhawks as well. While he has been disappointing this season, he poses more of an offensive threat than Matthew Highmore. The fourth line of Zack Smith, Kampf and Highmore poses little to no threat. Throw Nylander on a wing and there is at least something for opposing teams to worry about.

Switching Carpenter and Kampf also benefits Kampf's game, as he can focus more on his defensive game and not worry about having to center two skilled wingers. Kampf, Smith, and Nylander can transition into a line that Colliton can trust against high-scoring lines.

If the Blackhawks are going to get themselves back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the little things matter. Little mistakes can't continue happening. Every shift needs to be maximized. They cannot afford more Gustafsson miscues. David Kampf cannot continue slowing down Alex DeBrincat. Jeremy Colliton needs to look into some adjustments to get his team on the right path.