With captain Wheeler sidelined, time to take a gander at Gustafsson

Young Swede is reigning Moose MVP and leading scorer


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The sight of Blake Wheeler writhing in agony on the Rogers Arena ice Friday night was difficult to watch.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/12/2021 (472 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The sight of Blake Wheeler writhing in agony on the Rogers Arena ice Friday night was difficult to watch.

It takes a lot to keep the Winnipeg Jets captain down, but it was painfully obvious something serious had just occurred after his leg buckled in a most awkward way following a collision with a teammate during a chaotic scramble in front of their net.

Wheeler, who had appeared to turn back the clock and was having his finest game of the season, is going to be out a while. We should get further clarity about his injury and timeline when the 13-9-5 team returns to practice Monday to prepare for a three-game homestand that gets underway Tuesday night at Canada Life Centre.

But it says here an extended loss of the heart and soul of the hockey club doesn’t automatically have to bring the Jets to their knees. In fact, Winnipeg is better equipped than ever to handle such an absence, with the chance to grab one of those so-called silver linings you often hear about when something bad goes down.

When one door closes, another opens.

Allow me to take you back to early in the 2017-18 campaign, when one of the Winnipeg’s most reliable forwards, Mathieu Perreault, suffered a broken bone that would ultimately knock him out for more than a month. That created a big hole in the lineup, one that would be filled by a young player who had just missed making the team out of training camp. Here’s what Jets coach Paul Maurice had to say at the time about the call-up.

“I would think he was very disappointed, as they all are. But (he) turns around and now he gets a chance,” Maurice told reporters at the time. “We’ve got other players there that want that opportunity, too. So he has to perform. He needs to be able to play at that level.”

That player, of course, was Kyle Connor. I’d say it turned out OK, with only Alexander Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews having scored more goals since his well-deserved promotion. You wonder how much longer Connor would have had to spend ripening on the vine down on the farm had Perreault not got hurt blocking a shot?

Which takes us to today. With Wheeler out and veteran Riley Nash claimed on waivers last week by Tampa, the Jets now have only 11 healthy forwards on the roster. They also have just six healthy defencemen with the demotion on Sunday on Ville Heinola back to the Manitoba Moose. Blue-liner Neal Pionk remains in concussion protocol, but even his return wouldn’t give Maurice four full lines up front. (Playing 11 forwards, seven defencemen is not a long-term solution). That means at last one forward is on his way up, and likely going right into the lineup.

Is that David Gustafsson’s music? It should be.

Just like Connor four years ago, Gustafsson would seem to have little left to prove at the AHL level. The 21-year-old Swede is the reigning MVP and leading scorer (16 points in 23 games) of a very good Moose team, leads one of the best penalty killing units in the league, has an enticing combination of size and skill and is missing just one thing — an opportunity. But that should come knocking right now.

No, he’s likely not going to explode on the NHL scene like Connor did and start lighting up opposition goalies on a nightly basis. They’re two very different players. Connor was a gifted natural scorer when the Jets selected the Michigan winger 17th-overall in 2015. Gustafsson, taken 60th-overall in 2018, is a two-way centre with a lot less sizzle. Which is perfectly fine. The Jets don’t need him to come in and be something he’s not, and he’s likely going to find a comfortable home in the bottom-six of a deep, talented forward group. He can also help with the club’s Achilles’ heel — killing penalties.

The most predictable scenario off the hop is that Paul Stastny moves up to the top line to play wing with Connor and Mark Scheifele, as he did for the remainder of Friday’s eventual 4-3 shootout loss in Vancouver once Wheeler was out of the game. That would leave the second like of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp intact. Maurice could always shuffle those six in some fashion.

Gustafsson would then be in the mix with Adam Lowry, Kristian Vesalainen, Evgeny Svechnikov, Jansen Harkins and Dominic Toninato for work on either the third or fourth line. It could mean sliding him over to the wing, which Maurice has done with other young centres in the system and might ease his transition into a full-time NHL forward.

Another young player to watch here would be Cole Perfetti, but his situation is a bit more complicated. The 19-year-old is currently on loan to the Canadian World Junior team, which is holding its selection camp right now. He’s a lock to be a top-line player at the annual holiday tournament, but you wonder if a chance to shine on an even bigger stage could trump that? Winnipeg has the ability to call him back if they choose.

Perfetti broke camp in October with the Jets, skating in his first two NHL games before being reassigned to the Moose where he’s been dynamic. The 10th-overall pick from 2020 had 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 17 games, after putting up 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 32 AHL games as a rookie last year. He’s got a lot more offensive upside than Gustafsson, and could conceivably be given a shot in the top-six in Wheeler’s absence, allowing Stastny to remain on the third line to balance out Winnipeg’s attack a bit more. Although he’s a natural centre, he can also be moved to the wing.

The Jets have a couple more journeymen options available as well in 25-year-old Austin Poganski (15 points in 23 games with the Moose this year, six career NHL games) and 25-year-old Mikey Eyssimont (12 points in 16 games with the Moose this year, no career NHL games). Luke Johnson, 27, would be another, with 32 career NHL games under his belt, but he’s currently on the injured list and has only appeared in five games on the farm.

As for a potential trade, the Jets have almost no salary-cap space to work with unless it’s a money in, money out scenario. Putting Wheeler on long-term injured reserve (which would mean missing at least 10 games) would allow them some flexibility to go beyond the ceiling, but that’s an extremely unlikely scenario at this stage.

Gustafsson and/or Perfetti would make the most sense from my perspective. Both are drafted and developed top prospects who would inject some excitement and energy to the Jets. On the flip-side, Wheeler can take all the time he needs to fully heal and rest, and the 35-year-old should have plenty of gas in the tank when he eventually returns. He had struggled at times so far this season, as a bout with COVID-19 and Father Time seemed to be taking a toll. But if it means fresher legs down the regular-season stretch and for a playoff run, the Jets might just be better for it.

“We’ll get him healed up, we’ll find other players and we’ll find a way to do it without him,” Maurice said the other night about facing temporary life without their leader.

There’s no reason a little short-term pain here can’t ultimately term into a long-term gain for the team.


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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