Jets prospect Gustafsson sees clear path to carving out regular NHL role

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice talks about his roster heading into the upcoming season and why he believes it's the most balanced lineup the Jets have had.

WINNIPEG -- David Gustafsson doesn’t make a habit of making bold proclamations.

The Winnipeg Jets forward prospect is the type of guy who prefers to let his play do much of the talking for him.

So don’t think of this as a philosophical change, but Gustafsson sees a clear path to becoming an NHL regular this fall and he’s planning to do everything in his power to accomplish that goal.

“My approach is that I want to get a spot on the roster. I feel like there are a couple of open spots there and I want those to be mine,” said Gustafsson. “That’s just what I’m thinking about right now. I want to do everything I can to get that spot.”

Gustafsson carries himself with a quiet confidence, but knows what he wants.

And he’s well-equipped to take the next step in his development.

After the departure of forwards Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis in free agency, as well as Mason Appleton in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, there are more spots available on the Jets roster.

While the competition remains stiff, Gustafsson has several things working in his favour.

He’s already got 26 NHL games under his belt, including 22 during the 2019-20 campaign -- when he somewhat unexpectedly snagged a spot as a 19-year-old.

Although his minutes were limited, Gustafsson started the process of earning the trust of Jets head coach Paul Maurice with his defensive acumen and intelligence.

“We’ve liked him from the very first day he stepped on the ice at development camp because he can work at a level and smile at the same time. That means something,” said Maurice. “He was in such good shape and strong enough -- and he liked the work. Positionally, in some ways, very similar to Andrew Copp. We didn’t have to show [Copp] any video and we haven’t had to show this guy any video.

“He figures it out and he knows. He sees it once and he goes out and does it. He’s got a really high IQ in that part of the game. Some of it, I don’t know the answer to. I don’t know. He’s certainly big enough, he’s certainly strong enough and he’s smart enough.”

Gustafsson is an adept penalty killer, which is a feather in his cap since Thompson, Lewis and Appleton all contributed to that special-teams unit last season.

While he’s a natural centre with size and ample strength, Gustafsson is open to sliding over to the wing if that helps his cause.

“Of course. Everybody is going to say they can switch positions, as long as it means you’re playing in the NHL,” said Gustafsson. “Who wouldn’t? I could for sure manage to play on the wing. I’ve played centre most of my life, but it’s still forward. I could step out to the wing. There’s some different [responsibilities] but I’ve played there before and I will manage that.”

Gustafsson, chosen in the second round (60th overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft, is coming off a season that included more than its share of ups and downs -- both literally and figuratively.

Not only was he one of the many prospects around professional hockey that bounced between the American Hockey League and NHL taxi squads (with a few games sprinkled in), Gustafsson wasn’t fully healthy when he arrived at training camp in January after suffering an injury while playing for Tingsryds AIF - which hindered his ability to challenge for a roster spot.

“Obviously it does. I’m not saying that if I was healthy, I would have a spot, but if I come to training camp injured, there’s no way for me to show what I’ve been working on and how much better I got. So that was a setback,” said Gustafsson. “I don’t know, I feel like I came back strong from the injury and did everything I had to do but it’s way better this year, when I can come healthy for training camp and give it all I’ve got.”

Not that he needs any additional motivation in his quest, but watching fellow countryman Nils Hoglander enjoy a successful rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks resonated deeply.

“It’s inspiring,” said Gustafsson. “Hoglander is a guy I’ve played with, he’s the same age as me and I feel like we’re different kind of players, but if he can go in and do that well in his first season, then I feel like I can go in and take a spot on the roster for sure. So, it’s inspiring.”

Gustafsson, 21, has spent plenty of time during the off-season working on his shot and his skating, knowing that extra half step can make all the difference.

“As I talked about before, to be an NHL player, I need to be quicker. I feel like I’ve been working on my skating and my quickness all summer, I feel like I’m ready for that now,” said Gustafsson. “And then, if I get the chance, just show them that I want it. Just go out there and actually play. Don’t go out there and be afraid (to make a mistake) and just be out there. Go out there and try to make good stuff happen for the team and try to show them I want to be out there.”

Gustafsson has always been known for making the players around him better, even though he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers.

His offensive game began to shine last season in the American Hockey League when he recorded seven goals and 19 points in 22 games and now it’s a matter of seeing if that translates to the next level.

“Two years ago, it was my first season over here [in North America]. I stepped into the NHL directly and of course, it was fun and all of that,” said Gustafsson. “Obviously my dream coming true, but I was really nervous before the games and I didn’t have the confidence I have right now.”

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