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Video Analysis: Erik Gustafsson’s high-risk brand of hockey

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The new acquisition has offence on his mind at all times, even in his own zone.

Anaheim Ducks v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

According to our Patrik Bexell, the interest from the Montreal Canadiens in Erik Gustafsson dates back six years. They were in the running to sign the 2012 fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers after the team released his rights, but ultimately lost the courtship to the Chicago Blackhawks. It seems like the defenceman remained in the back of Marc Bergevin’s mind, however, as on Monday, in the last hours before the trade deadline, the general manager acquired him for a 2022 seventh-round pick.

I can’t say I expected such a deal. We know that Bergevin likes to stack his blue line in anticipation of the playoffs. He never wants to run out of capable bodies, but Gustafsson doesn’t represent his usual trade target. The general manager has a type. He likes Jon Merrills: bottom-pair, safer types of blue-liners who do their job without drawing too much attention to themselves — except maybe for their haircuts.

Gustafsson is, well, the exact opposite. For good and bad reasons, the spotlight always shines on the Swedish defenceman. No matter which team he played for, when he steps on the ice, everyone plays his style of hockey — Gustafsson hockey, an unpredictable, high-event, offensively focused game that can cause a series of mini heart attacks. Branded a health risk for coaches, he has turned into a bit of journeyman in the past year.

So, no, Gustafsson isn’t the usual depth piece you acquire at the deadline without a plan in mind or a specific role for him in which he can thrive.

From the start, his fit with Philadelphia was questionable. Shayne Gostisbehere already had trouble staying in the Flyers’ lineup last season and the team tried to replace him with a similarly minded defenceman. The Flyers found themselves with not just one, but two square pegs to fit in a round hole.

Montreal shouldn’t repeat the same pattern as Philadelphia.

The Habs can put Gustafsson down their depth chart and use him only as an emergency plug when injuries start to pile on, but it’s probable that he doesn’t fulfill that role all that well. Following systemic guidelines and limiting risks are not his forté. His defensive game has improved since Montreal was last interested in him, but it still suffers from many issues.

He backs off too much in his rush defence and uses too many crossovers, creating a swaying, side-to-side movement that opens up lanes for forwards to exploit. They can beat him with a fake or a quick lateral cut. In-zone, Gustafsson’s attention gets absorbed by the puck, but he doesn’t take the extra stride toward it to separate it from the opposition, preferring to ineffectively reach for it with his stick — or not make a play on it at all. He doesn’t use his body all that effectively in one-on-ones. Boxing out, engaging, and winning inside positioning on opponents are all weaker elements of his game.

The saving grace of his defence is his effort, the desperate shot-blocking attempts and the occasional great read to intercept pucks and rapidly push them up-ice.

Erik Gustafsson wears #56.

Gustafsson is arguably the second-best puck-mover in Montreal. He grades quite high on Corey Szajder’s data from 2018 to 2020 in breakout ability, lagging slightly behind Jeff Petry in that category. He does come out ahead of the Habs’ number-one defenceman in controlled entries, however; the passes and carries that gain the offensive blue line.

Data from Corey Sznajder/Viz from CJ Turtoro

You can also see Gustafsson’s rush-defence weaknesses in the table. Due to his looser gap, opponents attack his side of the ice more than his partner’s and they generally gain the zone against him relatively easily.

Gustafsson’s effectiveness in transition comes from a flurry of different habits and skills that work together: frequent shoulder-checks, deceptive head movements and posture, above-average agility, handling, and passing, and most importantly, a rapid pace of execution. However, the greatest strength of his transition play is also its greatest weakness: his high tolerance for risk.

He has confidence in his skill set and rarely settles for neutral plays, ones that don’t beat any opponent, like a lateral pass to his partner. The defenceman will do everything in his power to hit streaking forwards up ice. It can backfire when the opposition seals the neutral zone well.

Where my view of the defenceman clashes with Corey’s stats is in the shot-contribution category. In the offensive zone, Gustafsson can activate for back-door plays, cycle the puck high with the support of forwards, and occasionally beat defenders one-on-one, but for me, he remains a shoot-first kind of blue-liner. He doesn’t miss or look off open players in the slot, but his first instinct when he gets the puck is to look at the net.

What separates Gustafsson’s mentality from Joël Edmundson’s or Ben Chiarot’s is that firing doesn’t feel like a default, panic play for him. He fires with purpose: to score himself or with the aid of a deflection. Believing in his ability to get pucks through clogged lanes, Gustafsson seeks those plays. He reads the positioning of teammates and defenders, hides his release behind their bodies, and snaps the puck at the right height and angle to thread it through traffic.

Considering how a large part of Montreal’s offence runs through the point, Gustafsson’s shooting skills could complement it very well — provided he gets a chance to showcase them.

Which comes back to the central idea. Gustafsson is on his fourth team in a little more than a year. He has flaws. Large ones. It is more likely that Montreal becomes just another stop on his NHL journey. But as the defenceman’s skill set fits the Habs’ offensive style and their need on the back end — puck-moving — there is a small chance that the organization caught lightning in a bottle here.

In the coming weeks, the team should at least try Gustafsson on the first power-play unit and the third pair with a stabilizing partner like Jon Merrill, even if it means giving a rest to Alexander Romanov. The condensed schedule gives Montreal an occasion to rotate defencemen in and out to figure out the best possible combination for their back end, while still giving everyone a decent workload.