DALLAS — He models his game after Jonathan Toews and fell in love with Winnipeg while watching playoff hockey on television back home in Sweden this spring.
Yeah, we think David Gustafsson is going to make a pretty good first impression around these parts. It’s clear he did on Jets brass, who made him their top pick of the 2018 NHL draft on Saturday.
“The fans are great. The hockey culture, it seems like a good team, that they’re building something, and I’m so glad to be a part of it,” said Gustafsson, who was selected 60th overall.
The left-shooting centre, who stands 6-2 and weighs 196 pounds, opened some eyes last season when he cracked the HV71 roster of the Swedish Hockey League at the tender age of 17, which is no small feat overseas. He scored six goals and added six assists in 45 games.
“I took a spot there early in the season, not many guys do that at my age. So that’s probably my big highlight,” Gustafsson said of his hockey career so far.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff described Gustafsson as a two-way centreman with “exceptional hockey sense.”
“He’s playing already in the men’s league over there making a contribution. He’s someone that we project to be a real solid pro player. For young players to get a foothold that early in men’s leagues over in Europe, they have to have some special qualities. And he does have some of those,” said Cheveldayoff.
Gustafsson admitted he needs to work on his skating, which likely prevented him from being a higher pick.
“Work hard in both offence and defence. I can create offence, I’m reliable on defence, too,” said Gustafsson, who was one of the final cuts from last year’s world junior team and is very much on the radar for this coming tournament.
He is under contract for two more years overseas and then plans to come to Winnipeg to start his pro career, either with the Jets or the Manitoba Moose.
“I think I was gaining a lot more ice time at the end of the year, and I was playing better. It was just getting better and better the whole year, especially after Christmas,” said Gustafsson, who was teammates with fellow Jets defensive prospect Jacob Cederholm.
“We’ve been talking a lot about Winnipeg. He said it’s a great city and a great hockey town. He loves it there, and probably I will too,” said Gustafsson.
Winnipeg chose another two-way centreman with their second draft pick, taking Florida native Nathan Smith 91st-overall Saturday.
Smith 19, only began playing ice hockey at the age of 11 and became a scoring star in high school (176 points in 45 games) before jumping to the USHL with Cedar Rapids last season. He led that team in scoring with 17 goals and 30 assists in 51 games. He’s committed to playing college hockey with Minnesota State.
“Getting drafted is like a dream. It’s unbelievable and it’s good that I got to spend it with my family and that they were around to see it and everything. It was exciting when my name got called,” said Smith in a telephone conversation. He didn’t attend the draft in person.
Smith had numerous conversation with the Jets over the past year and knew there was serious interest on their part. He described himself as a creative offensive player, which comes from playing roller hockey since the age of six.
“I have pretty good vision, I would say. Just the puck movement and puck skills and stuff like that. The way I see the game,” he said.
Cheveldayoff called Smith a “late-bloomer type of player” with plenty of room for growth.
“We think really think there’s a strong development path there,” he said.
The Jets turned their attention to their blue-line for their next two picks Saturday, nabbing a pair of long-time friends just three picks apart in the fourth round.
First came defenceman Declan Chisholm, who had three goals and 17 assists last year in 47 games with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. The 18-year-old from Bowmanville, Ont. was limited by high-ankle sprain suffered earlier in the season.
Chisholm and his family were in attendance for the draft, and there was a huge roar in the rink when his name was called with the 150th pick.
“They were all super excited. We were all really nervous coming in. It was just a big relief once I got picked,” said Chisholm, who clocks in at 6’1 and 185 pounds.
Just moments later, the Jets used the 153rd pick to select another left-shot defenceman from the OHL in Giovanni Vallati. The 18-year-old from Ottawa had three goals and 23 assists in 65 games with Kitchener last year, where he was teammates with another Jets blue-line prospect in Logan Stanley.
“Yeah, it’s definitely kind of cool, we played together a lot growing up. We’re good friends,” the 6’1, 176-pound Vallati said of Chisholm.
Cheveldayoff described both players as similar puck-moving left-shooting defenders.
“Well, both of them obviously can skate and move pucks, and that’s something we were looking for from the defencemen we were hoping to target in the draft,” he said.
Vallati said he tries to play a similar style to Calgary’s TJ Brodie, while Chisholm compared himself to Toronto’s Travis Dermott.
Smooth skating, able to move the puck, elusive, able to create offence in the offensive zone and also reliable in the defensive zone,” said Chisholm.
Winnipeg stuck with their recent trend by picking a goalie in the sixth round for a third straight year. This time it was 18-year-old Jared Moe, who went 23-6 with a 2.23 GAA and .919 SV% in 32 games with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL. The Minnesota native is committed to play in the NCAA with the University of Minnesota
Cheveldayoff said they liked his mobility, skill and size — 6’3, 205 pounds — and were surprised to still see him available when they made the 184th-overall pick.
“We actually considered taking him a little bit earlier in the draft process as well and took a gamble that he was still going to be there (in the sixth round), and we were able to get him,” said Cheveldayoff. “Goalies, it’s all about the opportunity to have the net, and we think that’ll be a strong development path if it goes in that direction.”
With their final pick of the draft, the Jets selected winger Austin Wong at No. 215. The 17-year-old from Cochrane, Alta. had 25 goals and 29 assists in 55 games, plus 235 penalty minutes, while playing last season with the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He’ll spend one more year in junior before going to Harvard for hockey in the fall of 2019.
He may be just 5’11 and 189 pounds, but Cheveldayoff said Wong packs plenty of punch.
“Offensive, hard-hitting, competitive. He’s a player that competes and can finish checks. In a position in the draft there, we thought it was good value pick that we can get a guy that competitive with the skill level and the compete factors that he has,” said Cheveldayoff.
Wong’s brother, Tyler, went undrafted by signed as a free agent last season with the Vegas Golden Knights, spending time with both their AHL and ECHL affiliates.
Cheveldayoff said drafts are always about the future, and in the case of the players selected Saturday it likely will be several years down the road before any are potentially knocking on the door of NHL work.
That’s especially true when you trade away your first-round pick, as the Jets did this season, and then don’t even get your first pick until late in the second round because of their tremendous regular-season.
“I think the key to all this is the development path and the actual development of the player. And that’s when all of you and everyone starts talking like ‘Wow, I can’t believe he was a 4th or a 5th rounder,'” said Cheveldayoff. “So there are elements of these players games that we drafted here (Saturday) that need development. But part of the discussions and part of the places that we ranked them is we feel they’re on good development paths and in good situations to develop.”
All six picks are expected to be in Winnipeg for summer development camp, which runs Tuesday through Friday at the Bell MTS Iceplex.
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.