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FEATURE: High-scoring Gustafsson led improved 2018-19 blue line

Erik Gustafsson and Connor Murphy took steps forward on an improved Chicago defense

by Austin Siegel /

There are plenty of familiar faces among the NHL's Top 50 highest-scoring defensemen this season. You can find regulars like Kris Letang, Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson up and down the list. 

A five-time NHL All-Star and Stanley Cup champ like Drew Doughty? Of course. Minnesota stalwart Ryan Suter? You bet. 

But this season, they were all outscored by a third-year Blackhawk playing his first full NHL season. 

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Erik Gustafsson's breakout 2018-19 campaign was part of a resurgent year for the Chicago blue line, where Stanley Cup winners like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were joined by talented players with something to prove.

"A big part of it is just confidence," Gustafsson said. "I had a great start to the season and kind of felt like this was my last shot. Another year in Rockford, I didn't want to do that. So I took the shot and it was a great season."

Gustafsson didn't exactly join the Blackhawks straight from Europe and blow the doors off the United Center. The 27-year-old Swede signed with the organization back in 2015, after the Edmonton Oilers let his draft rights expire following Gustafsson's fourth-round selection back in 2012.

He spent the next three seasons splitting time between the NHL and AHL - making 120 appearances with the Rockford IceHogs and being named an alternate captain by then first-year head coach Jeremy Colliton. Gustafsson broke camp with the Blackhawks this season and enjoyed modest success with six points (1 G, 6 A) through the season's first month. 

"I've been up and down for three years. You don't get a lot of opportunities to play in the NHL, so I told myself before the season that I have to bring my A-game," Gustafsson said. "It was a great feeling to make the roster right away."

After Colliton took over, the Blackhawks became a work in progress as they adjusted to their new coach. But as the team's fortunes began to turn, it was Gustafsson who helped carry Chicago forward during a strong second half. 

An eight-game point streak in December grabbed headlines before Gustafsson enjoyed the best month of his professional career with 17 points in January (4 G, 13 A). 

"He's got the world at his feet if he wants," Colliton said, back in December. "As far as his ability to contribute in this league at a high level, he's going to make, I call them special plays. He's going to make those plays. But it's raising the minimum level that he plays at. If he does that, he can be a top player on top teams."

Gustafsson wasn't the only Blackhawks defenseman to take a step forward this season. Connor Murphy was Chicago's most high profile acquisition of the 2017-18 offseason and the former Arizona Coyote raised his game during his second season with the Blackhawks.

Despite missing 30 outings due to injury, Murphy's per-game scoring metrics rose in almost every category. But the 26-year-old is also aware of where the Blackhawks have to improve defensively heading into next season. 

"There are always situations, blocking shots or getting clears, there are different details to penalty kills and D-zones that make it successful," Murphy said. "Blocking shots is definitely a big part, but there are also big plays between being right positionally and making sure that you have your clears and getting the puck down the ice, keeping the percentages higher to not get scored on more."

Gustafsson said he looked to Murphy as a big part of the team's success defensively. 

"He's a great guy in the locker room and on the ice. A guy who can step up for his teammates," Gustafsson said. "He's a fighter. He's a very good defenseman, good with the puck and defensively he's outstanding out there. It was fun to see him this season and hopefully, be brings it back next year."

Further steps forward for both players would be very much welcomed by the organization in 2019-20.

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