After making five first-round picks in the previous three drafts, the Winnipeg Jets didn’t pick until the back end of Round 2 in 2018. They traded their first-rounder to St. Louis at last year’s deadline to make a Cup run with Paul Stastny, which of course was worthwhile for one of the youngest teams in the league that still has a high-end pipeline.
As even more prospects make or get a sniff of the NHL this season, with Jack Roslovic slotting in on the fourth line and Mason Appleton getting a call-up a couple of days ago, Winnipeg will be facing a cap crunch next year with a number of entry-level contracts on the horizon. And though they didn’t pick early in 2018, some would argue they still managed to pick up a first-round talent. Beyond that, they made some interesting, long-term prospect pickups whom we may not hear about in NHL circles for some time.
Here is a look at five of the most interesting 2018 draft picks made by Winnipeg, with an update on how they are performing this season.
David Gustafsson, 18, C, HV71 (SHL)
Drafted: Second round, 60th overall
Season to date: 9GP | 0G | 3A | 3P | +3
Ask some prospect analysts ahead of last year’s draft and some would have projected Gustafsson as a first-round NHL draft pick. So the fact that Winnipeg, which didn’t have a first-rounder at all following the Paul Stastny trade-deadline pickup, got him at the tail end of the second round is another big win for an organization still full of great prospects.
Though he didn’t crack Sweden’s WJC roster last season, look for him to make this year’s team. Outside of the WJC, which is more for 19-year-old players anyway, Gustafsson showed very well against his peer competition, scoring 13 points in 17 international competitions in under-18 events.
But his value goes beyond point totals. Gustafsson is capable of playing all three forward positions and is already recognized for having a well-developed two-way game. That has been demanded of him at the top level in Sweden, where he mostly plays a bottom-six role for HV71.
And though he only managed 12 points in 45 SHL games last season, don’t sleep on his offensive upside. Those totals tied him for 14th all-time in Swedish League scoring for an under-18 player, one behind what Daniel Sedin accomplished at that age. His season started late in 2018-19 due to an ankle injury, but look for that scoring to rise a little.
Nathan Smith, 20, C, Cedar Rapids (USHL)
Drafted: Third round, 91st overall
Season to date: 19GP | 2G | 11A | 13P | +8
Kyle Connor. Jack Roslovic. Andrew Copp. Tucker Poolman. Jacob Trouba. Connor Hellebuyck.
The Winnipeg Jets have had some fairly good success picking players out of the NCAA or American junior leagues, and they went back to the well again when they selected Smith in the third round this past summer.
Adding some intrigue to this pick, though, was the bit of history behind it. Selected in his second year of eligibility, Smith became the first player born and brought up in Tampa Bay’s minor-hockey season to have his name called by an NHL team at the draft. The centre was picked out of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, but the season prior, his first year of eligibility, he scored 44 points in 13 games for Mitchell High in Florida High School Hockey.
“I think they made a real good pick,” RoughRiders coach Mark Carlson told the Cedar Rapids Gazette earlier this season. “It’s his skating ability, his overall skill, his ability to score. He’s in real good shape, he’s got a real good hockey body, and he’s got an edge to his game as well. For Smitty, it’s just about working at it, learning what it takes to be a pro. Being an every day guy, an every shift guy, every rep guy. All those kinds of things. If he understands that, then look out.”
Committed to Minnesota State at the NCAA level, Smith is no doubt a long-term prospect and has returned to the RoughRiders for a second season.
“It’s definitely a cool thing,” he told the Tampa Bay Times of his roots. “It’s not like Minnesota, where high school hockey is a big thing. But it’s definitely growing down here in Florida, which is awesome. The Lightning promote the sport really well. Me, being from Florida, playing my entire youth career here, and where I’m at now is big stuff.”
Declan Chisholm, 18, D, Peterborough Petes (OHL)
Drafted: Fifth round, 150th overall
Season to date: 26GP | 3G | 23A | 26P | +11
After finishing with 20 points in 47 games last season, Chisholm has already moved well past that mark and leads the 15-11-0-0 Petes in scoring by a wide seven-point margin.
Chisholm has been given more opportunity under new Petes coach Rob Wilson, who saw areas the young defenceman could improve in and targeted working on those aspects of his game.
“We all know he is a great skater, he’s got great feet, but his gap control is really good now,” Wilson told the Peterborough Examiner. “I remember watching some stuff where I thought we could improve his gap and he has improved on his gap. When the attack is coming in on him he’s limiting the time and space of the opposing team very well. He and [Cole] Fraser are playing against the other team’s top line every game and they’re doing a great job for us. That’s hard to do but it’s showing the responsibility he has to take it upon himself to be that defenceman. It’s also not hurt his offensive production.”
Chisholm is fourth in OHL defencemen scoring, six off the pace set by San Jose first-rounder Ryan Merkley. He impressed Hockey Canada enough to be included in the OHL leg of the CIBC Canada-Russia Series earlier this month.
Giovanni Vallati, 18, D, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
Drafted: Fifth round, 153rd overall
Season to date: 25GP | 4G | 10A | 14P | +3
Acquired by the Generals (the top historical rival of Chisholm’s Petes) in a summer trade, it was promised that Vallati would be given more opportunity to succeed with his new team.
“I don’t know if we got enough production from our back end over the last couple of years,” GM Roger Hunt said at the start of the season. “He’ll get an offensive role here and a chance to really spread his wings.”
So far that has come to fruition. With four goals, Vallati has already surpassed last year’s total, and his 14 points are pacing for an uptick as well. He has good size at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds and, again, is a long-term prospect for the Jets. Vallati was the second left shot defenceman selected by Winnipeg at the draft and brings a good shot to his game as well.
Austin Wong, 18, C, Okotoks Oilers (AJHL)
Drafted: Seventh round, 215th overall
Season to date: 23GP | 13G | 13A | 26P | Even
If you look at Wong’s stat page, one of the first things you may notice after his point total is his 107 penalty minutes in just 23 games. And this comes on the heels of his second AJHL season in 2017-18, in which he posted 235 PIMs.
Seeing that you might assume that Wong is a towering physical specimen, but he stands just 5-foot-11. He is listed at 190 pounds, though, and is a bowling ball and an agitator all over the ice. He can score, too, as is evidenced by his 31 goals over the past 78 AJHL games, but he hasn’t yet been tested at a higher level of competition.
That will change next year, when he’s expected to play for Harvard University, currently ranked just outside of the top 20 in the NCAA. A long-term player and perhaps a long shot to reach the NHL, given his size and style, Wong will be a fascinating prospect to watch develop in the coming years.