Gustafsson positively optimistic Moose forward sees AHL playoffs as chance to impress parent club

David Gustafsson prefers to take a glass half-full approach.

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David Gustafsson prefers to take a glass half-full approach.

A naturally positive person, the Swedish-born forward with a big smile seemingly always on his face is quick to find the silver lining in just about any situation.

Sure, one of the top young prospects of the Winnipeg Jets, who burst onto the scene by playing 22 big-league games in his rookie year (2019-20), wishes there had been more NHL appearances over the past two years.

There were only four games last season, and just two in this current one.

“Of course there’s been a frustration that my NHL games have been getting less every year,” Gustafsson, 22, said Friday in a telephone chat with the Free Press.

David Gustafsson has 14 goals and 14 assists in 45 games with the Moose this season. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

But he’s not exactly hanging his head or pouting over it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Gustafsson, a second-round (60th overall) selection in 2018, has become a leader on a Manitoba Moose club poised to make some serious noise this spring, with the prospect of a lengthy playoff run on tap. And he knows a strong performance on the big stage will only boost his future prospects.

“It’s going to be my first playoffs here in North America and I’m really looking forward to it. Everybody keeps talking about how different the playoffs is and how much more fun it is, and I’m glad I get to finally experience it,” said Gustafsson.

Head coach Mark Morrison’s crew down on the farm has become an American Hockey League force, posting a 38-22-7 record that has it in second place in the Central Division and sixth-overall in the league. The Moose have five regular-season games remaining — back-to-back meetings with the IceHogs in Rockford, Ill., this weekend, then three COVID-postponed make-up dates at Canada Life Centre next week — before the puck drops on the playoffs the first week of May.

“It is really exciting. Especially seeing some big names coming back after injuries and some big names coming down from the Jets,” said Gustafsson. “You look around and I really like our chances right now. If we can get this going I think we can go a long way.”

Gustafsson, who has 14 goals and 14 assists in 45 games in antlers this season, would likely have spent a lot more time with the Jets if not for some tough injury luck he hopes is now behind him for good. After a strong start with the Moose, he was called up to play his first NHL game of the year against Washington on Dec. 17 — the first game under interim bench boss Dave Lowry. But he suffered a lower-body ailment after just a few shifts, skating a grand total of 2:37.

Gustafsson recovered in time to play his second game on Jan. 2 in Vegas, following an extended holiday and pandemic-related break, only to go down with a new injury after only 2:19 of action. He was placed on injured reserve, then sent down to the Moose in mid-February once healthy enough to play. Lowry said given his lack of action over the previous few months, big minutes on a big role with the Moose was vital.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Gustafsson at the Jets’ prospect training camp in September 2021. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

And Gustafsson, for the record, is perfectly fine with that.

“After injuries, I just want to play as much as I can. That’s what I can do when I’m down here with the Moose. Especially now during playoffs,” he said. “I want to experience all the experience of playoffs. Right now I want to just focus on that, and then I’ll try to focus on getting some more NHL games next year.”

The Jets are limited by a four-player recall maximum following the trade deadline last month, which prevents a mass promotion of players down the stretch here unless there are emergency conditions created by injuries. Lowry said earlier this week they plan to utilize the roster they have for the last four games of the year, which are all on home ice starting Sunday against Colorado.

In other words, Gustafsson will likely have to wait until next year for his 29th NHL appearance. For now, the focus is on his current situation, and taking a run at a Calder Cup championship. Current Jets call-ups Dylan Samberg, Morgan Barron and Mikhail Berdin will soon rejoin a loaded Moose group that includes the likes of Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen, Kristian Reichel, Austin Poganski, Jeff Malott, C.J. Suess and Mikey Eyssimont, Ville Heinola, Declan Chisholm and Johnathan Kovacevic. All of those players have appeared in at least one NHL game this year.

“I think we’ve always been a four-line team. You can see guys go from fourth line to first line. It’s not like it’s just one line scoring. Everybody’s scoring,” Gustafsson said of the healthy competition that exists on a tight-knit group. “Right now I don’t feel like there’s anybody feeling secure about their spot. Some guys are coming back from injuries, some guys coming back from the Jets. Some guys are just playing really good right now. There can be a lot of things changing around, and I feel like that could be good for the competition.”

With Jets management having nothing but time on their calendar starting next month, no doubt plenty of important eyes will be watching.

“We lift each other really good when somebody gets a chance. It’s probably one of the best team spirits I’ve been around during my career. I feel like that’s probably our biggest strength. I feel like you can see that we play for each other, we fight for each other. When you have seven guys make their NHL debuts this year, that adds confidence to your game. We have a lot of guys out there confident they can play a level higher than they are,” said Gustafsson.

“I have to show people, because I haven’t had a chance to show people yet I’m a playoff hockey player. I know that’s something people value a lot. That’s what I’m going to try to do here.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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