On Wednesday, after the Vegas Golden Knights traded for Alec Martinez, shoring up their blue line and completing their top four, Jesse Granger of The Athletic tweeted that the Golden Knights were interested in Erik Gustafsson of the Chicago Blackhawks.
For once, I’m going to break third person just real quick. I cover both the Golden Knights here and the Blackhawks for sister site Second City Hockey. I enjoy both responsibilities immensely, but it has taught me a couple things that I would have forgotten about, if I was still only covering the Knights. The most important, at least in this situation? Erik Gustafsson is bad, and must be avoided.
I’m not kidding. One can only watch so many falls as opponents get breakaways and collisions with his own teammates in the neutral zone before getting sick of a player. That’s happened with Gustafsson. The Blackhawks absolutely must move Gustafsson, and the Golden Knights must absolutely not be the ones he is moved to.
For one thing, what role would Gustafsson have? He is not someone that can be trusted on the penalty kill, and he is not a better power-play quarterback than Shea Theodore. In fact, if you take the Golden Knights’ current six best defensemen, you could make a power-play unit out of them. One that would include Theodore manning the point, with Nate Schmidt, Nick Holden, Martinez and Nicolas Hague also on that unit (only Brayden McNabb would be left off). There is not a serious need for another power-play defenseman at the time being.
Secondly, his even strength stats would easily be some of the worst among the Golden Knights’ blue line, especially defensively. His 60 shot attempts allowed per 60 are highest on the blue line, including new addition Martinez, and his 3.25 expected goals against/60 are almost .5 worse than the highest Golden Knight (Schmidt).
The other problem with Gustafsson is that of: who plays with him? Whoever it is must be excellent defensively and able to drive the puck as well, and cover up for mistakes Gustafsson makes (and with 53 giveaways this season, more than any Golden Knights defenseman, he makes a lot). With Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt both struggling this season, and Theodore deserving of a better partner than what Gustafsson can give, would Holden have to dive on the grenade?
Connor Murphy, an excellent defenseman in his own right and the best 200-foot blue liner the Blackhawks have, has had to play the most with Gustafsson this season. His stats immediately improve once you take Gustafsson off his pairing and replace him with any other defenseman from Chicago.
Gustafsson is currently worth -1.5 goals above replacement and -.3 wins above replacement, and while his expected results are better (1.1 xGAR, .2 xWAR), they’re still not exceptional. That’s in part due to Gustafsson’s -3.7 expected goals above replacement in terms of even-strength defense. He’s simply not good at that aspect of the game, and that’s, well, in the job description.
But, you might be saying, what about his offense? He surely adds there? Sure, but he doesn’t add more than Theodore or Schmidt, both of whom have better counts and rates in every stat, including points per 60 and goals per 60.
The real telling thing is that Nicolas Hague is almost entirely across the board superior to Gustafsson, and Hague is both better in his own end and a bigger part of the Golden Knights’ future. If Vegas wants to add a defenseman not currently on the team at the deadline, besides Martinez, it should be him. Recall Hague, and there’s no need for Gustafsson.
But even if Hague isn’t recalled, there is no need for Gustafsson. Vegas can find better value elsewhere, and it would not be a smart addition.
But if the Edmonton Oilers need a defenseman, hey, Chicago is willing to sell.