Can the Canadiens revitalize Erik Gustafsson’s attacking game?

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Marc Bergevin has clearly targeted his defensive group as in dire need of improvement before the NHL trade deadline. His addition of Jon Merrill was a small but smart move to add a stabilizing presence on the third pair, alongside either Brett Kulak or Alexander Romanov. It’s a decision that makes sense and the cost paid was just an average prospect in the AHL and a fifth-round pick.

The deal coincided with Victor Mete’s waiver and subsequent claim by the Ottawa Senators on Monday afternoon. As the trade deadline passed, Bergevin was rather calm, not really tied to anything substantial. In the dying moments, the general manager dispatched a 2022 seventh-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Erik Gustafsson, with the Flyers keeping 50% of his salary.

First of all, cost is probably the lowest value a team can part ways with to get a player with a withheld salary, so a bright spot to note is that Bergevin didn’t pay too much in the slightest way. (despite the remarkable success that Montreal has had in this field in recent years).

Watching Erik Gustafsson requires evaluating two different versions of the defenseman: 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 from Philadelphia who struggled defensively and has lost its offensive swagger. .

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

Even before his stint in the NHL, Gustafsson was a strong producer in defense for Djurgården and Frölunda in Sweden. This all sounds good, until we take a look at his last stint with the Flyers, where puck and attacking movement production took a serious dive in 2020-21.

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

The abandonment of the game is clear, but for it to be this something drastic in the system implemented by a coaching staff must have a significant effect. As Canadiens fans know, Michel Therrien and Alain Vigenault are not known for their offensive creativity, and that goes against a player like Gustafsson.

So where exactly can the Canadiens adapt their new acquisition on their blue line this season? Just because he was alongside Duncan Keith doesn’t mean he should be used in the same way at Montreal, not least because Gustafsson is an average to below average defenseman. His strength won’t be in the defensive zone, and if the Canadiens want to get the best out of Erik Gustafsson by linking him to big-minute men Shea Weber or Jeff Petry, that’s certainly not the way.

There is potential value as a second wave power player, and someone who gets a fair amount of offensive zone starts. That’s the hard part with this trade: getting Gustafsson into the roster is sacrificing someone already established and who has been playing a three-zone game all season. Whether it’s Brett Kulak or Alexander Romanov depends on where the team wants to fit into Jon Merrill, and it’s only more complicated once Ben Chiarot is back. As it stands, Gustafsson doesn’t bring more defensive prowess than Chiarot or Kulak, and only produces slightly more than Romanov at the moment.

At the end of the day, it’s a move that doesn’t hurt all of the Canadiens without more roster limits, and it might even help if the team puts Gustafsson in a position to succeed. However, it’s a bit of a head-scratching move considering the addition of Merrill and the imminent return of Chiarot. As always, depth isn’t a bad thing, especially with a very condensed schedule ahead. This is Marc Bergevin’s standard: a low risk transaction with upside potential, similar to the acquisition of Mikey Reilly a few years ago.

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