“I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track
And as I go, I love to sing
My knapsack on my back
My knapsack on my back.”
-- Florenz Friedrich Sigismund (“The Happy Wanderer”)Erik Gustafsson, happy or not, has been a bit of a wanderer over his career. Once a fourth-round draft pick (93rd overall) of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 Entry Draft. He never dressed for the Oilers, Edmonton relinquishing their rights to allow him to become a free agent in 2015. In May 2015 he signed a two-year/$1.85 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. It would as close to a hockey “home” as he would know in his career to date. He would sign two more contracts with the Blackhawks and play parts of four seasons with the club before he was traded to the Calgary Flames for a third-round pick in the 2020 Entry Draft.
The trade to the Flames started a tour of NHL cities in which he barely left a footprint. He played seven games with the Flames before he was signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Flyers in October 2020. He played 24 games with the Flyers before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in April 2021 for a seventh-round pick in the 2022 Entry Draft. After dressing for only five games with the Canadiens, he returned to Chicago as a free agent in October 2021. He took the ice for 59 games with the Blackhawks last season but was allowed to depart a second time, this time as an unrestricted free agent, signing a one-year/$800,000 deal with the Caps last July.
If there was something in last year’s experience with Chicago that might have impressed the Caps, it might have been this. Gustafsson was one of 11 defensemen to appear in 50 or more games, average less than 17 minutes of ice time per game and post at least 15 points. He was 3-15-18 in 59 games averaging 16:13 per game in ice time.
Odd Gustafsson Fact… Erik Gustafsson posted 17 goals with Chicago in 2018-2019. Over his other five seasons in the NHL he has a combined total of only 15 goals. Of his 32 career goals, 31 were scored with Chicago (one with Philadelphia).
Fearless’ Take… Gustafsson has a rather sneaky resume. Sure, the Caps will be his fifth team in seven seasons, but in six seasons and 309 games, he has a per-82 game career scoring line of 8-31-39. That is weighted by the big year he had in 2018-2019 with Chicago (17-43-60 in 79 games), but on the optimistic side, that might be an indicator of what he is capable of when getting a lot of ice time (a career high of 22:35 per game).
Cheerless’ Take… In their scouting report on Gustafsson, TSN.ca says this about his career potential: “Offense-first depth defenseman.” We get the “depth defenseman” part, but “offense-first?” Maybe not “first,” even with the points. Only once at any level of hockey since 2009-2010 did Gustafsson post more than ten goals in a season (the 17 he had with Chicago in 2018-2019). He averages 8.5 goals per 82 games over his NHL career, and while this is not an anemic number, it doesn’t shout “offense-first.”
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2022-2023
- 200 career points (he has 149)
- 100 career penalty minutes (85)
The Big Question… Can Erik Gustafsson be the player to solidify the third defensive pair?
The top two defensive pairs for the Caps appear set – John Carlson and Martin Fehervary on the top pair, and Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen on the second pair. Trevor van Riemsdyk will man one of the spots on the third pair. Who will his partner be? Gabriel Carlsson has six seasons and 75 games of NHL experience, including 38 games with Columbus last season. Matt Irwin has ten years of experience with six teams and 400 games of NHL experience. Lucas Johansen, a former first round pick who has struggled to take the last big step to the NHL but might be getting his best chance to do so this season. Erik Gustafsson would appear to have the inside track, though.
Last season, Caps defensemen played in at least 60 games, and the bottom two defensemen in terms of ice time played a bit more than Erik Gustafsson played last season (Trevor van Riemsdyk – 17:28; Justin Schultz – 16:55). Gustafsson, who averaged 16:13 for Chicago last season, might get a little more if he earns the open slot on the third pair, and if he could repeat his offensive numbers from last season he would at least hold his own compared to those two defensemen mentioned and the numbers they posted last season (van Riemsdyk – 1-16-17; Schultz – 4-19-23). And he would do so at a $3.2 million saving compared to Schultz’ cap hit last season.
In the end…
The third defensive pair is, almost by definition, not an “impact” pair, but neither can it be a liability. Trevor van Riemsdyk has demonstrated an ability to provide steady, if unspectacular play in that role. Now, the task will be to find him a partner who can be as steady and as reliable. The Caps will be Erik Gustafsson’s fifth team since 2019-2020 (Calgary, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Chicago before coming to DC), and it will be perhaps the best team of the five for him to play on. But he does face the challenge of earning a spot in the midst of a competition with several other players for that sixth defenseman role.
Gustafsson does not have the experience (309 regular season and 31 playoff games) of a Matt Irwin (400 regular season and 47 playoff games), but he has played in a Stanley Cup final (two games with Montreal in 2021), as has Irwin (six games with Nashville in 2017. He is not as young (30 years old) as either Carlsson (25) or Johansen (24 years old), but he is still in what could be considered his chronological prime. Does he have the combination of experience, age, and potential to win the competition for a starting spot in the Caps lineup? As a player on a one-year deal, he has incentive to perform in the event he goes a-wandering once more at season’s end or gets an extension with the Caps.
Projection: 64 games, 4-13-17, plus-1