ARLINGTON, V.A. — Heading into the summer, new Washington Capitals blueliner Erik Gustafsson wasn’t sure where he’d be headed. However, he did know one thing: he wanted to win.
And ultimately, that led the 30-year-old to D.C. on a one-year, $800,000 contract following a disappointing year with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“They have a great group, and they know how to win. And that’s what we want to do, right?” Gustafsson said. “They like the D to join the rush, and that’s where I can bring to the team, too. That’s what I want to bring.”
Gustafsson is coming off a rough past few seasons, one that saw him come within three wins of the Stanley Cup in 2021 with the Montreal Canadiens and another that saw him miss the playoffs entirely with the Blackhawks in 2022. But now, he’ll get his chance to shine with Washington as he takes over the only vacancy on the blue line: the open LHD spot next to former Blackhawks teammate Trevor van Riemsdyk on the third pairing.
As he takes over that role, which belonged to Justin Schultz just a few months back, Gustafsson is confident in his ability and believes that his ability fits perfectly with what the Capitals need.
“I have to play a solid game. Just to be on the right side, play hard and when I get the puck back, I think I can manage the puck and play the first pass from our zone well and join the rush as much as I can,” Gustafsson said. “They like the D to follow up here, and that’s what I like and that’s what I can bring to this team. Chip in some offense and try to hold onto the puck and create some scoring chances.”
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It’s that style of play that has made Gustafsson the type of defenseman that forwards love to play with. He skates well, can start the breakout and of course, join the rush when he has to. That in itself also earned him a 60-point season just a few years back in 2018-19.
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Gustafsson said. “Let the forwards do their job and just follow up the rush and try to be an option.”
So far, Washington has been a welcome change from Chicago both on and off the ice. Gustafsson has acclimated well thanks to his teammates and coaches, as well as video and clips that have helped him learn the team’s systems entering the campaign. However, one name that’s stood out for him so far is fellow blueliner John Carlson, who sits in the stall right next to him.
“When I came to Chicago, I had Duncan Keith, and Carlson’s the same way,” Gustafsson said of No. 74. “Talks a lot and trying to help me out as much as he can and always a great guy in the locker room. You hear him a lot, so it’s nice to have him close. I can ask him whatever I want, even on the ice and stuff like that. So it’s good to have him.
“It’s great. I know a bunch of Swedish guy first when I came here, but all the other guys have been great to me ever since I came over here. It’s a great group of guys in the locker room. It was hard to play against this team even last year too. So it’s nice to be in here,” he added of the culture.
Off the ice, the former Blackhawk admitted that the pace of the DMV is much better than that of Chicago, and that it’s also a place where he’s been able to adjust well with his wife and three kids, who are five, three and nine months old.
“It’s a little different from the downtown rush… I like this more, I can tell you that,” Gustafsson said with a laugh. “Having three kids, I rented a house here too, so it’s nice to have a backyard with the kids and let the kids go out in the backyard.”
This season, Gustafsson has a primary goal in mind: he wants to win a Stanley Cup, something he’s gotten so close to but hasn’t yet accomplished over the course of his career. For now, he’s still getting used to the team and already feels at home.
“I got a couple videos right off when I signed here… I’m getting there, and it’s small stuff that I have to learn. That’s what the games are for,” Gustafsson said. “But I feel confident.”