When David Gustafsson was advised he’d be joining the “Black Aces” the Winnipeg Jets prospect figured he’d been swapped to another squad.

When David Gustafsson was advised he’d be joining the "Black Aces" the Winnipeg Jets prospect figured he’d been swapped to another squad.

"I never heard of that before. I didn’t know what they were talking about, like it was some new team or something," Gustafsson said with a hearty laugh, during a recent phone chat with the Free Press. "I still don’t know why they call it that … no idea."

The 21-year-old centre was among a group of extra players added to the Jets roster for the NHL team’s recent playoff run. He’d been a key performer with the Manitoba Moose for several months until the American Hockey League squad season concluded in mid-May.

David Gustafsson, a Winnipeg Jets second-round pick in the 2018 draft, was on the team's "Black Aces" squad during their 2021 playoff run.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

David Gustafsson, a Winnipeg Jets second-round pick in the 2018 draft, was on the team's "Black Aces" squad during their 2021 playoff run.

The Black Aces travelled to Edmonton and Montreal, practising after the main group’s on-ice sessions, with the expectation each member was ready, willing and able to compete at a high level if summoned by the Jets.

Gustaffson didn’t get the call — much to the chagrin of some Jets fans and hockey pundits who'd anticipated lineup changes that, ultimately, never came in a second-round series sweep at the hands of the Canadiens.

The Swedish product maintains he was prepared to play at a moment's notice, adding it was easy to get swept up in the post-season emotion.

"It's inspirational for all us guys to see some of the older guys prepare the same way every day, trying be better every game." — David Gustafsson

"It was really exciting. It's so much different in the playoffs, everybody's taking things a lot more seriously. It's nice to see how passionate the guys are when it comes to hockey, and doing everything they can to be the best they can be when they play games," Gustafsson said by phone, during a stop-over in Toronto, en route to Copenhagen where he'd catch a train home.

"It's inspirational for all us guys to see some of the older guys prepare the same way every day, trying be better every game," he added.

Prospects in the pipeline

The Winnipeg Jets already had some talented youngsters making an impact, including defenceman Logan Stanley and forwards Kristian Vesalainen and Jansen Harkens. The list below includes a handful of prospects that could play prominent roles with the NHL club in the coming years:

The Winnipeg Jets already had some talented youngsters making an impact, including defenceman Logan Stanley and forwards Kristian Vesalainen and Jansen Harkens. The list below includes a handful of prospects that could play prominent roles with the NHL club in the coming years:

Goalies

Mikhail Berdin - It's near impossible to not like this kid. The Russian-born puckstopper as remarkable talent but is witty and insightul -- even through broken English -- flashing a brashness beyond his years. Most consider him the eventual backup to Winnipeg's premier goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, assuming Laurent Brossoit is offered, and accepts, another short-term deal to stick around. Berdin split the 2021 season between SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL (6-3-2, 2.52 GAA, .912 S%) and the Manitoba Moose (13-11-4, 2.89 GAA, .897 S%). He's only 23 and could be a fixture in the organization for years to come.

Arvid Holm - Winnipeg took a flyer on the lanky Swede in the sixth round of the 2017 Draft and stil have high hopes for the 22-year-old netminder. He spent his Farjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League (13-10-0, 2.70 GAA, .914 S%).

Defence

Ville Heinola - He's a blue-chipper, without a doubt. But the Jets brass has shown -- perhaps, to the the team's detriment -- that the young Finn, a first-rounder two summers ago, won't be rushed. Yes, he cracked the NHL roster out of training camp in 2019. Yes, he chalked up a goal and give points in eight games before being shipped back to Lukko Rauma for some additional marinating. Yes, he was an offensive driver for the Moose in 19 games in 2021 (4G, 11A). But he wasn't afforded any real opportunity to shine with the big club in the short 2021 campaign, and that was clearly by design as coach Paul Maurice relied on veterans, instead. That simply cannot be the case for the small but heady, smooth-skating 20-year-old who, by all accounts, should be gifted a job on the left side.

Dylan Samberg - The U.S. college product plays a man's game and will challenge for a job on that same left side in Winnipeg. He's 6-3, 200 pounds and thrives on physicality. He doesn't wow with offensive flare, however, his well-rounded game with the Moose turned some heads and, despite being just 22, will be given a fair shake at training camp to make the jump.

Forwards

Cole Perfetti - The Jets first-round pick (10th overall) in 2020 could have faced a lost 2021 campaign, however, he benefited from two stints wearing the Maple Leaf and flourished with the Moose (9G, 17A), suiting up for 32 games in the AHL. With a return to junior not an option, owing to COVID-19, Perfetti played for Canada at the world junior championship early in the year, feeling the heartache of a defeat in the final. He was eased into the Moose lineup and accumulated points playing a peripheral game, bolstered by power-play time, but by the end of the season was earning rave review for his compete level in the dirty areas of the ice. The Jets require an injection of youth up front, and Perfetti fits the bill.

Nathan Smith - Consider the Florida product a bit of a sleeper. The Jets grabbed him in the third round in 2019 out of Cedar Rapids of the USHL, knowing full well he was committed to Minnesota State University (Mankato) for the 2019-20 season. This is a kid who didn't even don ice skates until he was 11, after five years on roller blades. In 63 college contests, he has 18 goals and 34 assists over two years with the Mavericks.

Winnipeg's second-round selection (60th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft played 22 for the Jets during the 2019-20 season, notching his first NHL goal and, most importantly, gaining the attention and trust of his bosses. But he only suited up for a handful of games with the Jets in 2021.

Yet, despite his age and shortage of experience, Gustafsson made massive strides under Moose head coach Pascal Vincent and has earned serious consideration for full-time work up the middle with the Jets.

Gustafsson is eager for the opportunity to make his mark in training camp.

"I feel every time I come to Winnipeg, my goal is to crack the lineup. That's the end goal," he said. "But I feel like I have a lot of years left and I won't put too much pressure on myself, yet."

With a late start scheduled for the AHL regular season, Gustafsson suited up in the fall for hometown Tingsryds AIF in a second-tier league Swedish pro hockey, scoring seven times and chipping in 10 assists in 16 games before missing nearly a month with an ankle injury.

Gustafsson, centre, played 22 games this season for the Manitoba Moose and garnered top-line minutes.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Gustafsson, centre, played 22 games this season for the Manitoba Moose and garnered top-line minutes.

He wound up missing parts of Jets training camp and delayed his return to the lineup. He made his season debut Jan. 26 against the Oilers (replacing injured centre Nate Thompson on the fourth line), one of just four contests he played in the NHL.

Gustafsson played big minutes over 22 games for Manitoba, scoring seven times and chipping in 12 assists. He missed a couple of weeks in March because of a cracked rib sustained March 26 in Winnipeg against Laval.

"It's been a strange season, of course. I played significantly less games (in Winnipeg) than I wanted to, so that's not a positive thing," said Gustafsson, who has filled out considerably since draft day three years ago, now 6-foot-2, 212 pounds. "But also I understand it wasn't easy sending guys up and down this year, so it's been harder as a young player to get games. So, when I played with the Moose I did everything I could to make the best of it, to work hard and get better."

"I understand it wasn't easy sending guys up and down this year, so it's been harder as a young player to get games. So, when I played with the Moose I did everything I could to make the best of it, to work hard and get better." — David Gustafsson

With the Moose, he played top-line minutes with Nathan Todd and Jeff Malott, and slotted in on the club's power-play and penalty-killing units.

"Learning-wise, it was a good season. I became a better hockey player this year, and as a young guy that's all I care about. I've always been a good defensive player and that's what (Jets head coach) Paul (Maurice) told me, too," Gustafsson said. "But he said also if I'm going to play every day in the NHL, I have to have some offensive upside, too. I gotta be able to play with the puck and make it stay in the offensive zone."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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