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Can the Canadiens revitalize Erik Gustafsson’s offensive game?

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He cost next to nothing. Can the Canadiens help the Swede tap into his old offensive form?

Chicago Blackhawks v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Marc Bergevin clearly targeted his defensive group as one in drastic need of improvement heading into the NHL Trade Deadline. His addition of Jon Merrill was a small but smart piece of business to add a stabilizing presence on the third pair, alongside Brett Kulak or Alexander Romanov. It’s a move that makes sense and the cost paid for it was just a middling AHL prospect and a fifth-round pick.

That deal coincided with Victor Mete going on waivers, and his subsequent claim by the Ottawa Senators on Monday afternoon. With the trade deadline flying by, Bergevin was mostly quiet, not really being tied to anything of substance. In the final moments, the GM shipped a 2022 seventh-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Erik Gustafsson, with the Flyers retaining 50% of his salary.

First off, the cost is quite possibly the lowest value a team can part with to get a player with salary retained, so a positive to note is that Bergevin didn’t overpay in the slightest way (despite the remarkable success Montreal has had in that round in recent years).

Looking at Erik Gustafsson requires evaluating two different versions of the defenceman: the one who played for the Chicago Blackhawks when he showed himself to be a dominant offensive producer on the blue line, and the one in Philadelphia who struggled mightily defensively and lost his offensive swagger.

In Chicago, Gustafsson had the benefit of being stapled to Duncan Keith in a season he produced 60 points. That came with a huge amount of offensive-zone starts, and a healthy dose of power-play time which resulted in an incredible 17-goal season.

Even before his time in the NHL, Gustafsson was a solid producer on defence for both Djurgården and Frölunda in Sweden. All of that sounds well and good, until we take a look at his most recent time with the Flyers, where the puck-moving and offensive production took a serious nosedive in 2020-21.

Part of that comes from the style that Gustafsson was forced to play. For a player with a history of high offensive output, he was far from a volume shooter this season with just 25 shots in 24 games. Being free to launch the puck on a unit with offensive players is what helped him to reach his peak, and in Philadelphia the coaching staff appears to have neutered that.

The dropoff in play is clear, but for it to be that drastic something within the system implemented by a coaching staff must be having a singificant effect. As Canadiens fans are well aware, Michel Therrien and Alain Vigenault aren’t known for offensive creativity, and that goes against the grain for a player like Gustafsson.

So then where exactly can the Canadiens fit their new acquisiton on their blue line this season? Just because he was alongside Duncan Keith doesn’t mean he should be used similarly in Montreal, namely because Gustafsson is an average to below-average defender. His strength isn’t going to be in the defensive zone, and if the Canadiens want to get the best from Erik Gustafsson tying him to big-minute men Shea Weber or Jeff Petry is most certainly not the way.

There’s some potential value as a second wave power-play guy, and someone who gets a healthy dose of offensive zone starts. That’s the difficult part with this trade: to get Gustafsson in the lineup is going a sacrifice an already established person, and one who’s been playing a three-zone game all season long. Whether it’s Brett Kulak or Alexander Romanov depends on where the team wants to slot in Jon Merrill, and it’s only more complicated once Ben Chiarot returns. As it stands, Gustafsson doesn’t bring more defensive prowess than Chiarot or Kulak, and is producing only slightly more than Romanov right now.

At the end of the day, it’s a move that doesn’t damage the Canadiens overall with no more roster limit, and it could even help if the team puts Gustafsson in a spot to succeed. However, it is a bit of a head-scratching move considering the addition of Merrill and the impending return of Chiarot. As always, depth isn’t a bad thing, especially with a heavily condensed schedule coming up. This is the Marc Bergevin standard: a low-risk trade with a potential upside, similar to the acquisition of Mikey Reilly a few years ago.