TRINEC, Czech Republic - After David Gustafsson put up five points in five games to lead Team Sweden at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August, Swedish head coach Tomas Monten was already thinking about which wingers to pair the 6-foot-2, 196 pound centreman with to create Sweden's top line at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Two months later, those day dreams were pushed aside when the 19-year-old, who was drafted in the 2nd round in 2018 by the Winnipeg Jets and signed his entry level contract in June, impressed in his first NHL camp and made Jets' opening day roster.
"He's a really good player and an important player for us, but we didn't expect him to do that," Monten stated shaking his head.
"He had a really good start to the season. He scored that goal and I thought there's no way they'd release him. But, it's our job to ask and we did and they didn't say no right away. That's when we felt maybe we have a chance."
Video: WPG@SJS: Gustafsson scores first career NHL goal
It's no secret the Jets were looking for more depth at forward, even with Gustafsson's solid play in his role of fourth-line centre. When the team claimed Nick Shore off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs, the door to the world junior championship for the young Swede was open.
"He's not been playing big minutes and I think that's why Winnipeg wanted to send him here - so he can play bigger minutes and play bigger parts. He's going to play on our first line. He going to play on our power play and our PK, important minutes and be a leader on the ice," Monten explained.
"We're really happy with the Jets for releasing him, both for us and for David as well, but we don't want to rush him. We're gonna start him off pretty slow and ease him into the tournament to make sure his conditioning is ready, but he's a workhorse so we expect him to log big minutes for us by the time this tournament is over."
From the Jets perspective, it's an opportunity for Gustafsson to take a step in his development and apply what he's learned so far in his 22 NHL games.
"We liked the idea that David was preparing for his role in the role that he was given, even on short minutes. At the same time, we became very mindful of those minutes," said Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice. "This is some really high-level hockey, albeit amateur, but the best players in the world. It will be a great test for him. He'll improve in that time."
For Gustafsson, being loaned to Team Sweden for this tournament is a chance to take care of some unfinished business.
"Last year, not making it past the quarterfinals, did not go as planned at all," he said.
"So I was really happy that I was allowed to be here. It's nice to be back and try to do it better this year and show the people back home that we're a good team. It's a special feeling wearing the Swedish national team jersey and it's a fun group of guys. So, it's nice to see them again too. And, I'm excited to get some more ice time and have a big role on the team. It's a good opportunity for me."
Gustafsson is centreing Sweden's top line with Nils Hoglander and Samuel Fagemo, two very fast, very offensive wingers. Through two games the men on Gus' flanks have combined for eight points, helping Sweden move to 2-0 in the tournament.
"They're two speed guys. I like to play with them. They win a lot of pucks and they're very skilled players. I try to be the front man high and take care of the defensive responsibilities and when we're in the zone I just let them loose, let them do whatever they want with the puck. I like to be in front of the net and maybe score some easy goals that way," he said with a smirk.
In their two exhibition games, the line scored five goals. They also connected for two more in their first game of the tournament - a 3-2 overtime win over Finland.
"I think he's going to create a lot of time and space for those forwards and he's gonna win a lot of puck battles to his forwards too," Monten said.
"He's a solid centreman that you can put out in all situations. He's strong on face-offs. He carries the puck. He helps his wingers to be able to play with speed and feed them the puck. He's maybe not the flashy offensive guy, but as a Swedish centreman, he's the real deal and it helps that he can cover the blueline if the defense joins the rush. He's got good reads and can adapt to that kind of play."
While Gustafsson brings NHL experience and all the things he's picked up along the way to Team Sweden, he's hoping to bring more back with him to North America when the tournament concludes on January 5th.
"I've learned so much playing in the NHL already - little things like making quick decisions and picking pucks up in the corner and a lot on face-offs too - and I will, of course try to teach the other guys everything I've learned and be as helpful as I can, but I just want to play my game here - a solid two way game - and hopefully score some points too," he said.
"I would also like to be more comfortable with the puck and take that with me back to Winnipeg. That would be good for me - to get more confidence with the puck and get some more ice time. And, of course," he paused and smiled before continuing. "…bring a gold medal home. I'd like that too."