Every hockey fan has a favorite player, the one guy on the team that you just have to have on the back of your jersey. Maybe this player is an offensive maestro, directing the game at a level superior to anyone else on the ice. Maybe your type is a more old-fashioned scrapper, the underdog skater with limited offensive upside, but all the heart and fight in the world. There might a be handful of you reading this right now who like a little bit of everything, favoring a jack-of-all-trades player that possesses an uncommon intelligence and relentless drive. If that’s you, then you might just fall in love with David “The Gus Bus” Gustafsson.
When Gustafsson was drafted in 2018, his scouting reports were relatively unexceptional. Some described as “an all-substance no-flash type of prospect,” the kind of skater that does the dirty work without recognition. Others remarked that David had “somewhat limited scoring ability,” and was more suited to being a role player. For a second-round pick drafted at 60th overall, the expectation was that Gustafsson might one day carve out a role as a defensive bottom-6 centre. Expectations have a funny way of being subverted by the unlikeliest of outcomes.
For the past few seasons, Gustafsson has quietly been amassing a fascinating profile with the Manitoba Moose. He became the de facto number 1 centre on the team, handling just about every duty the coaching staff threw at him. Gustafsson handled the responsibility beautifully, and racked up a solid 56 points in 82 games. These numbers probably aren’t jumping off the page at you, but anyone who watched Gustafsson work, knew his contributions extended far beyond the boxscore. His confident distribution, relentless forecheck, and calming presence in possession made him a leader by example on the ice.
I thought last year would be Gustafsson’s big coming out party in the NHL. He was poised to seize a depth role for the team, and would likely have become one of the key cogs in Winnipeg’s penalty kill. His solid pre-season showings made a number of us excited for his potential, even if the early underlying returns looked rough. Gustafsson’s hopes and dreams were dashed by a handful of injuries, and he spent much of the year sidelined.
Hope springs eternal, and the dawn of a new coaching staff and the opening of roster competition granted Gustafsson a tremendous opportunity. This could be his year to prove he’s the man for the job, and a burgeoning talent worth investing in for the future. We’ve often seen similar scenarios establish themselves for other prospects, and many have fallen short of expectations. Gustafsson, on the other hand, has excelled at a level that should set the standard for future graduating prospects. You might see his 46.72 xGF% (Natural Stat Trick) and wonder what all the fuss is about. The secret to Gustafsson’s “bus mode” is what he does away from the puck.
If you were to do a breakdown of the most intelligent players on Winnipeg’s roster, Cole Perfetti would likely top the list. There’d be shouts for Scheifele and Ehlers as well. Gustafsson, however, should be at the top portion of every list. His ability to read and react rapidly to developing plays is something the Jets aren’t used to. I’ve watched him recognize an opposing counter is forming, sprint across the blueline to the skater preparing to receive the puck for a defensive zone exit, and pressures the receiver into an immediate turnover. This play might sound very simple, but it requires an exceptional understanding of space, timing, and the flow of play.
Gustafsson always seems to know where the puck is, and where it’s moving next. He routinely cuts off zone exits for opponents, spearheads puck movement through the neutral zone, and uses his powerful frame to muscle his way towards the net. Gustafsson has a sharp eye for his linemates, and feeds dangerous passes to his linemates in quality scoring positions. Once the puck has left his stick, he’s already moving to more dangerous positions or pre-positioning himself to cut off counters before they materialize. Gustafsson consistently makes intelligent reads in all 3 zones of the ice, and it’s given the coaching staff enough confidence to put him on the penalty kill where he continues to shine.
The next evolution for Gustafsson’s career is a promotion further up the line-up. Right now, he’s largely being tasked with fourth line match-up minutes, pummeling opposing groups with brute force and a relentless press. Gustafsson has much more to offer the Jets, and the team needs to pair him with skilled scorers to truly understand his understated genius. We’ve already seen Harkins benefit from Gustafsson’s forechecking presence and space creation. If you marry that to the future dynamism of a Brad Lambert or Kyle Connor, the sky may very well be the limit. Gustafsson can offer that primary defensive presence while continually pushing play forward. He’s my current pick to succeed Dubois, and I believe he’ll thrive if allowed to become the bruising power forward hiding within him.
This season, keep an eye on Gustafsson’s development. The coaching staff is increasingly giving him difficult responsibilities, and even had his line defending the lead against the Ducks. I don’t know if Winnipeg will fully realize what they have in Gustafsson, but if they do, they’ll have stumbled upon the next Andrew Copp. Gustafsson just might be even brainier, and I can’t wait to see what his future holds.