Butterflies? You could say David Gustafsson had a few on Monday as he prepared to make his Winnipeg Jets NHL debut.
Sure, it was just a pre-season tilt in Edmonton against the Oilers. But in these early days of his pro career, it may as well have been Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals for the 19-year-old Swedish centre.
As Gustafsson met with a few media members following the morning skate at Bell MTS Iceplex, he was a big, nervous ball of energy. At one point, his fidgety hands accidentally karate-chopped the iPhone I was holding to record our chat, sending it crashing to the ground.
Like I said, the kid had a case of the jitters.
And who can blame him. This is all still fresh, exciting and no doubt a bit scary for Gustafsson, who was drafted by the Jets in the second round (60th overall) in 2018 but didn't attend training camp last fall as he remained in Europe with HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League.
It's a different story this year, with Gustafsson now getting his first taste of North American game action. He suited up for the rookie prospect tournament in Belleville earlier this month and acquitted himself nicely, then joined main camp in Winnipeg last week.
On Monday night, he was expected to be anchoring an intriguing line that included the ever-improving Mason Appleton and Finnish free agent signing Joona Luoto.
"I’m just going to go in and do my best and have fun while I’m doing it. I don’t know what they’re expecting from me but I am going to go in and do my best," said Gustafsson.
In some ways, Gustafsson might be a bit of a forgotten or even overlooked prospect by some fans. The 2018 draft marked the first time since their return that the Jets didn't have a first-round pick, thanks to the deal with St. Louis that brought in Paul Stastny for the run to the Western Conference Final.
'He makes a mistake out there but he already knows it before I skate over and say ‘you’re supposed to hold that position a little longer’ ... he’s going "I know I have to hold that position a little bit longer" ' - Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Gustafsson
But within the organization, Gustafsson is seen as an extremely valued player who won't be rushed. He's one of the few natural centres in the system — a position that has been the source of concern for the big club in recent years.
Some scouts have compared the 6-2, 196-pound Gustafsson to another big centre who was drafted in a similar spot (67th overall) by the team in 2011. That would be Adam Lowry, and coach Paul Maurice said drawing such parallels wasn't off-base.
"Not in terms of respect for the game and (knowing) what that role is. He’s very conscientious about his job on the ice. He’s not looking to cheat the game. The interaction between himself in the middle and those four other players (on the ice) is really important to him. There’s a version there (of Lowry)," said Maurice.
There's no question a centre spot is up for grabs at this training camp, especially with Andrew Copp and Jack Roslovic set to begin the season on the wings. Who plays behind Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little and Lowry will have to get sorted out over these next couple weeks.
Veteran free agent addition Mark Letestu would seem to be the early favourite, but the opportunity exists for Gustafsson to open some eyes.
"A real, smart kind of grinder and I mean that in the good sense. He’s a two-way player. He’s going to be physical. He makes a mistake out there but he already knows it before I skate over and say ‘you’re supposed to hold that position a little longer’ — he’s going ‘I know I have to hold that position a little bit longer.’ He’s that kind of player. Real smart positionally and he’s real strong and he’s got some bite and some grit to his game and he works the corners," said Maurice.
"What we saw in development camp last year was that he was one of the guys who at the end of each skate, he was still driving just as hard as he was (at the beginning). He had the capacity to do that. He hadn’t fatigued. And he had a big smile on his face. So, he likes the work, he’s in good shape and you can see that he can push through."
Maurice has often moved centre prospects to the wing, believing it helps get them to the NHL quicker given all the added responsibilities up the middle. Roslovic would be a recent example of that. Whether Gustafsson follows suit remains to be seen.
"He’s going to tell us that over the next two or three years. We have a lot of time on this guy. So he will get into his pro game and everybody has a chance to make the team, most of these young guys start with the American League. I’m not saying he will, I’m just saying most do. And then you learn. If he can handle it, then you’ll leave him. And if you think a player is struggling a little bit but still like the player, like Jack Roslovic, you’ll get him out to the wing and buy him some time," said Maurice.
Gustafsson struggled with an early-season injury last year that impacted his production, with just two goals and 10 assists in 36 regular-season games. He felt like he hit his stride come playoffs, with a goal and three assists in nine games.
"It’s a really good league, it helps you a lot and develops you lot. It was an important year for me last year. It started off actually pretty bad for me. I had some injuries and when I came back I didn’t play the game as I used to. But then after Christmas and into the playoffs, I feel like I really stepped up my game and learned a lot from it," said Gustafsson, who is now trying to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface.
"It’s a lot more different than you think it is. It’s a different game, too. It’s a lot faster here. You got to have some time to adjust to it," he said. "The first games I played here (at the rookie prospect showcase), I was a little too slow with the puck and coach said to me, you have to have in your mind already down what you’re going to do with the puck before you get the puck. That’s the thing I need to work on and that’s the thing I feel I’ve improved a lot."
If he doesn't stick with the Jets, Gustafsson will have to be returned to Sweden for one more year with his pro team there, as playing in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose is not an option since he wasn't selected in the first round.
"I try not to think about it that much. Of course, I came here to take a place on the team. To just see and learn, I’m wanting to take a place," said Gustafsson.
There's talk he could captain the Swedish squad at the World Junior Championships, which will be playing this coming holiday season in the Czech Republic. He had three assists in five games with the squad last year.
"I feel like I’ve got a lot of support from back home in Sweden. The coaches are always happy for me, but of course they want me to go back," said Gustafsson.
Whether they get their wish remains to be seen.
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.