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Erik Gustafsson could be the final piece needed for the Caps’ defense

Erik Gustafsson, left, vies for the puck during the first round of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship earlier this year. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)

After losing Justin Schultz to Seattle in free agency, Washington found itself in need of a third-pair defenseman to skate alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk. With few internal candidates, the Washington Capitals signed defenseman Erik Gustafsson, a 30-year-old Swede who is suiting up for his fifth team in four seasons.

Gustafsson, who signed a one-year, $800,000 contract in July, recorded 18 points last season with Chicago and looks to bring the same production to Washington. The defenseman will still need to prove himself throughout the duration of camp, but he appears to be a lock for the third-pair role.

Gustafsson occupied that spot for the entire first week of camp and played there during Washington’s preseason opener Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres. There are a handful of names that could be in the mix, including veteran Matt Irwin and some younger prospects, but it appears Gustafsson is ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

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Gustafsson joins a Washington blue line that has five returning defensemen — van Riemsdyk, John Carlson, Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov. Gustafsson would be the final piece of the puzzle.

“I really like the way our ‘D’ played last year,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “There was a lot of stability with it. There was a lot of stability with the pairings, and I think that they played really well together.”

Gustafsson takes pride in his offensive production for a defenseman, and he is willing to join the rush and produce scoring chances for himself and his teammates.

Gustafsson said his timing wasn’t quite right in Sunday’s preseason opener, which led to atypical mistakes. He also had a costly holding penalty late that allowed Buffalo to score the equalizer. The Sabres won in overtime.

“When a player comes into a new organization … I think there’s always a learning curve,” Laviolette said. “I thought there were some really good things that he did [Sunday], and then there’s some things that we talked to him about and showed him. I think it’s just the early part of camp and a new player and a new system, but he’ll be fine.”

Gustafsson said he started learning Washington’s system a few days after he signed with the Capitals in the offseason. Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who runs the defense, sent Gustafsson videos leading up to training camp.

“I’ve been looking over some clips a lot, but it’s a little different when you’re on the ice,” Gustafsson said. “I’m getting there, and it’s some small stuff that I have to learn. That’s what the games are for, but practice-wise I feel confident.”

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Van Riemsdyk, Gustafsson’s projected defensive partner, is also helping with the transition. Gustafsson played with van Riemsdyk in Chicago. They weren’t long-term defensive partners but often found themselves playing shifts together during games.

Carlson, whose locker sits next to Gustafsson’s, has also been an asset to him. Gustafsson had a similar mentor in Duncan Keith when he was in Chicago.

“I think [Gustafsson] is going to be great; he’s a real skilled guy, he sees the ice well and a guy we kind of heard rumblings about leading up to him being here,” Carlson said.

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