WINNIPEG — David Gustafsson knows the value of making a strong first impression.
So on a night when several Winnipeg Jets hopefuls either had mistakes lead directly to goals against or let nerves get the best of them, it was not surprising to see Gustafsson among those to stack up a series of smart plays.
That’s what the Swedish centre has the ability to do: to make those around him better by making deft decisions and being in the right place at the right time.
Those are qualities that caught the attention of the Jets coaching staff before he was selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft, and they’re also the things that pushed Gustafsson onto the roster in the fall of 2019 — albeit momentarily, as he was sent to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League after appearing in 22 games.
Gustafsson didn’t put up eye-popping numbers in the minors, but he earned the trust of the coaching staff with his two-way game, which is enhanced by his hockey sense.
In what was the first of six pre-season games on Sunday night in Edmonton against the Oilers, Gustafsson didn’t draw attention to himself by making a bunch of flashy, highlight-reel plays.
But he’s constantly on the right side of the puck and running proper routes, things that help a player earn the trust of a coaching staff — especially one that isn’t as familiar with your style of play.
“It’s a battle out there every day for who wants to take it,” Gustafsson said on Saturday. “If I want a place I’ve got to show the coaches I earn it more than some other guys. That’s what I’ve got to do and it’s nothing else than that.
“This coach (Rick Bowness) hasn’t seen me play before, so I’ve got to go out there and show what kind of player I am. These first few days it’s really important. He gets the first look of you and it tends to stick for a while.”
Bowness made it clear earlier this weekend he wouldn’t be racing to make a broad assessment on Gustafsson or any of the other young players trying to solidify their standing for that matter.
That was still the case on Sunday night, and Bowness has been around the block enough times to know he shouldn’t overreact to the result of a game that didn’t resemble anything close to what his opening-day lineup will be.
“Look, the first exhibition game, it’s always ugly, it’s always scrambly and (Sunday) was a perfect example,” Bowness told reporters in Edmonton. “Our puck management, we gave them a couple of goals and our inability to score goals when we had the opportunity. So, when that happens, you end up beating yourself, which we did. Yeah, a lot of young faces. They needed a little more experience. We’ll decide what we’re going to do Tuesday night, tomorrow, but the young guys were a little nervous.
“When you’re nervous and you’re working, you’re not always getting something done. For the first game, the energy was good. There are clearly areas we need to clean up and we’ll continue to work on those.”
The Jets plan to take Monday off before returning to action Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators.
A defensive-zone turnover by blue-liner Logan Stanley led to a goal against just 41 seconds into the contest, but the Jets seemed to settle down after that — at least until things unravelled in the third period when the Oilers struck three times in just under five minutes to blow the game wide open.
It was a rough opening outing for Stanley, who entered training camp with the knowledge there are a number of guys on the left side who are trying to pass him on the depth chart.
Stanley needs to play an aggressive, assertive game while exerting himself physically and moving the puck efficiently in order to thwart some of the challengers.
He didn’t check off many of those boxes against the Oilers on Sunday, though he was credited with 10 hits in just under 21 minutes of action.
Kyle Capobianco showed some nice mobility on the back end in his first pre-season action and was tasked with running the first power-play unit.
It’s true the puck movement wasn’t crisp enough during a two-man advantage in the second period — when the Jets were unable to draw even despite generating several opportunities — but Capobianco gave a glimpse that he might finish this competition higher than some folks predict he might be.
In just over 21 minutes of ice time — including 4:31 with the man-advantage — Capobianco had three shots on goal, five shot attempts, two blocked shots and a hit.
He was definitely involved and will warrant further looks as Bowness and associate coach Scott Arniel start to zone in on who fits best with whom on the D-pairings.
Whether Capobianco ends up being a guy who serves as a mentor to the young blue-liners in the minors or pushes for work in the seventh slot will be sorted out during the coming weeks.
When it comes to other guys looking to work their way into the equation up front, winger Saku Maenalanen had a solid outing.
Maenalanen, who signed a one-year deal with the Jets after spending two seasons with Jokerit in the KHL and another with Karpat in Liiga, showed off some of the skills that have stood out during the opening days of training camp.
For a team that wants to be tougher to play against, Maenalanen moves well (especially for someone who is 6-4, 207 pounds) and plays with some edge.
He drew a penalty against the Oilers on Sunday and clearly stood out in just under 12 minutes of work, generating four shots on goal, six shot attempts and delivering five hits.
Whether he ends up forcing his way onto the team immediately or ends up being close to the front of the line for call-ups, Maenalanen is a good bet to get NHL games this season.
Centre Kevin Stenlund is another forward who is new to the organization, and he’s shown some early chemistry with Maenalanen, so it made sense they played on a line together in the first pre-season game.
Stenlund, 26, found himself filling in on the Jets’ top power-play unit and saw him time on the penalty kill as well.
Now onto his second organization and coming back from a knee injury that impacted the pace that he played at, Stenlund seems to be relishing the opportunity to show he might end up being more than just a valuable depth guy.
Chaz Lucius, the Jets’ 2021 first-rounder, had an interesting outing as he continues to work his way back from off-season ankle surgery.
Playing his natural position of centre, Lucius showed off his offensive instincts and quick release, but also got beaten to a loose puck by Oilers centre Ryan McLeod on the third goal.
Lucius gets credit for his initial read after Capobianco jumped down and joined the play in the offensive zone, but he was then caught flat-footed in the neutral zone and missed his assignment as McLeod raced in and scooped the puck past Jets goalie David Rittich, who finished with 22 saves.
This will end up being one of those valuable learning experiences for Lucius, who is one of the most talented prospects in the system and has the type of finishing ability that is hard to find and virtually impossible to teach.