Erik Gustafsson

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Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Flyers’ Gustafsson signs in KHL (Updated)

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From our friends at CSN Philly:

Erik Gustafsson won’t be returning to the Flyers next season. The 25-year-old defenseman signed Friday with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, according to an NJ.com report.

Gustafsson played in just 31 games this past season — and oftentimes was a healthy scratch. He tallied two goals and eight assists in those games, and also scored in the Flyers’ Game 6 win over the Rangers.

Gustafsson was a pending restricted free agent on a crowded Philly blue line. The undrafted Swede was signed by the Flyers out of college (Northern Michigan) in 2010.

Update:

Video: Simmonds nets hat trick for Flyers in Game 6 (Update)

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After setting a career-high with 29 goals this season, Philadelphia Flyers power forward Wayne Simmonds had been kept mostly under wraps (one goal, one assist) by the New York Rangers through the first five games of their first-round series. So far, he’s giving his team a real chance to make this series go the distance with Game 6’s first two goals.

They’re both basically trademark Simmonds goals, as the 25-year-old displays his knack for cleaning up rebounds and loose pucks in the “dirty” areas:

Update: Simmonds scored yet another goal to give himself a hat trick:

As a bonus, here’s Erik Gustafsson’s tally right out of the penalty box:

Flyers’ Grossmann undergoes season-ending ankle surgery

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Whether the Philadelphia Flyers keep going or not after Game 6 on Tuesday, it looks like they’ll be doing so without defenseman Nicklas Grossmann. The hard-hitting defenseman underwent surgery to repair tendon damage in his right ankle on Tuesday and will miss 8-10 weeks.

That timetable essentially ends the 29-year-old’s season barring a remarkable recovery late in what would need to be a deep playoff run for the Flyers.

The big Swede was injured thanks to this awkward fall in Game 4 against the New York Rangers:

Philly originally replaced Grossmann with an even larger defenseman in Hal Gill, but now it looks like Erik Gustafsson will play in his first 2014 postseason game tonight in Gill’s place.

Flyer flip: Gill out, Gustafsson to make series debut

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Hal Gill’s Game 5 cameo won’t extend to Game 6, as the Flyers have announced Erik Gustafsson will draw into the lineup tonight to take on the Rangers at Wells Fargo.

Gustafsson, who appeared in 31 regular season contests, hasn’t played at all this postseason (his last game was on Apr. 13), but is being called upon after Gill looked rusty in Sunday’s 4-2 loss. The 39-year-old was minus-2 in just over 12 minutes of ice time and looked a step slow, something Flyers head coach Craig Berube alluded to in explaining why Gustafsson was drawing in.

“I like his speed,” Berube said, per Philly.com. “He’s a quick player getting up ice. Just looking at that aspect of it.”

The Flyers have been forced to dig into their defensive depth with Nicklas Grossmann sidelined since Game 4 of the series. The hope is that Gustafsson can replicate the success he had during the 2012 playoffs, especially in an series-clinching win over Pittsburgh, when he scored a goal and finished plus-3 in over 22 minutes of ice time.