David Gustafsson waited not-so-patiently for his opportunity to slide into the Winnipeg Jets’ lineup. The Swedish-born forward made the roster out of training camp, practised intensely and studied the tactics of players at his position while he was perched in the press box as a healthy scratch.
But an injury to Mark Letestu created an opening Tuesday for Gustafsson, and a nearly two-week delay to make his NHL debut came to an end as the 19-year-old centre skated with Gabriel Bourque and Mason Appleton on the fourth line as the Jets battled the visiting Arizona Coyotes. Gustafsson had one shot block in 5:59 of ice time.
Speaking after the morning skate, Gustafsson said his excitement level was on overdrive throughout training camp and pre-season, and he was anxious to taste the real thing.
“It’s been tough, I’m not gonna lie. But it’s been nice to be around the guys on the team,” he said. “Now I’m here and going to play my first game, it’s going to be special. I mean, it’s the thing you’ve been dreaming about ever since you were a little kid.”
Whether it’s a one-and-done scenario remains to be seen. Winnipeg has just 12 healthy forwards. Letestu has an undisclosed injury and is listed as day to day, while Bryan Little (concussion) has yet to participate in contact drills as part of the NHL’s concussion protocol.
Gustafsson, who wore jersey No. 19, has limited options, and the American Hockey League isn’t one of the them. The Jets either retain his services for the year or must return him to his Swedish pro team, HV71 Jonkoping.
At 6-2 and nearly 200 pounds, Winnipeg’s second-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft showed during the pre-season he processes the job requirements of being a conscientious centre in his own end, moves up the ice well and isn’t shy on the forecheck.
“He’s an unusual young man… he’s got a real smart, defensive stick and a real quick pickup on the reads,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “He would be behind it the first couple of exhibition games, but only by a foot and a half. And then you could see it in practice and the games, he’s starting to pick that stuff up pretty quick.”
Gustafsson said he used his time as a healthy scratch wisely.
“I watch all the centremen. (Mark Scheifele) is a real good player, so sometimes the things he does is a little too hard for me. But of course I watch all the centremen and watch how they position themselves in the defensive zone and the neutral zone and breakouts and everything,” Gustafsson said.
“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned at least to live like an NHL player and know some small details (about) these days and the game. Obviously, it’s a lot faster here.”
Gustafsson admitted he brought his parents to tears when he shared the first-game news.
“Both my parents started to cry. So, it was an emotional reaction from them,” he said. “My parents have always been there for me. My dad was the one who introduced me to hockey and the one who took me to the rink when I was five years old. And my mom was always supporting me and every choice I make. They are a big part of this.”
It was a 2 a.m. puck drop in Tingsryd, Sweden, about 500 kilometres south of Stockholm, but the hyped-up Gustafsson clan was expected to have the coffee on and the TV volume cranked.
“It’s during the night, though,” he said. “But I think they will stay up.”
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So, there was Eric Comrie on the ice Tuesday morning, with a different jersey but a similar set of circumstances.
The 24-year-old goalie was the odd man out in Winnipeg and now he’s No. 3 on the Coyotes depth chart behind Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta. Comrie was plucked off waivers Oct. 1 after the Jets reassigned him to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
“They obviously have two great goalies. I’m really just trying to work hard in practice and get better. We have a really good goalie coach (ex-NHLer Corey Schwab) and he’s been doing some fantastic things with me. It’s been awesome. I’m the kind of guy that likes getting as much information as I can get,” Comrie said following Arizona’s morning skate.
— with files from Taylor Allen
Assistant sports editor
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