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2021 NHL Draft Profile: Lukas Gustafsson

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Gustafsson may be the most undervalued, unknown prospects in this draft

2020 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Kyle Brown/NHLI via Getty Images

Sometimes, a prospect goes relatively unnoticed because they just haven’t had the chance to show what they can do. Some of it can be coming from somewhere pretty obscure when it comes to hockey hotbeds. Some if it can be just being blocked by older, good players on powerhouse teams, where they’re not given as much of a role to showcase their abilities as younger rookies in their junior league.

That’s one of the reasons why things like NHLe, or similar models that forecast a player’s future by comparing his point production at certain ages and in certain leagues, can fall short sometimes. To get big point totals, you have to be given minutes and powerplay time, plus good teammates to set you up or to score goals you set them up for. It also doesn’t account for other valuable skills, especially for defensemen. Points by defensemen are great, but there’s a whole host of other abilities they could and should be good at, which such models simply can’t take into account (the data does not exist at all leagues and levels).

Which brings us to the curious case of Lukas Gustafsson. He split time this season between US High School and the Chicago Steel, who have become a powerhouse team in the USHL in part by their ability to continually find and develop talent that other teams miss. There are very few people talking about Gustafsson at all, but there are reasons to think that he may be one of the most underrated prospects and potential hidden gems in this draft.

THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT

Lukas Gustafsson is a 5’10” left-shot defenseman that was born in the great hockey hotbed of New Orleans. He was born in December 16, 2002, so a very late birthday for his year. Less than three years later in 2005, his home was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. This caused his family to move to the other great hockey hotbed of Alphretta, Georgia.

If you’re wondering how a New Orleans-then-Georgia kid wound up getting into hockey, it’s because his father, Marcus, was a Swedish hockey player who moved to the USA in the 1990’s to play in the NCAA. He actually scored the game winning overtime goal in the 1999 national championship for the University of Maine in his senior year. He would play in three AHL games for the Syracuse Crunch later that season, and one season for the New Orleans Brass in the ECHL before retiring in 2000.

Anyways, back to Lukas, he was scouted in Georgia by the eventual head coach of Cushing Academy, one of the top Massachusetts Prep High School teams. He actually played as a forward until he was 13 years old, when his team was short on defensemen in a tournament and he’s stuck ever since.

In 2020, fresh off putting up 44 points in 34 games for Cushing and finishing sixth among defensemen in US Prep Highschool, he was drafted by the Chicago Steel. He was originally promised a bigger role going into this season, but then COVID happened. One thing that COVID caused was other top players throughout North America to find places to play. That pushed Gustafsson down the depth chart enough to leave him with only a part-time role with the team. So he started the year playing in US high school again, where he put up 9 points in only 4 games. Eventually he would rejoin Chicago partway through the season, and would get into 14 regular season games and 2 other playoff games. In those games, he would score one goal and total four points.

With COVID not likely to be as much of an issue next season, and with older players moving on to the NCAA, Gustafsson has been promised a top pair, all situations role with Chicago next year, and he is committed to Boston College in the NCAA the following year.

Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:

  • Bob McKenzie: Unranked
  • Will Scouch: 52nd
  • Scott Wheeler: Unranked
  • Elite Prospects: Unranked
  • Dobber Prospects: 64th
  • Smaht Scouting: 81st

THE GOOD: SKATING, DECISION MAKING, AGGRESSION

My god can Lukas Gustafsson skate. I’m not an expert on this, but I genuinely think he might have been the best skater on the ice in every game I watched. And considering he was playing for the top USHL team with two potential first round picks, that’s saying a lot.

Allow me to describe the very first shift I saw of him:

  • Sticks to his man on an attempted zone entry by the opposition, follows him all the way to in front of his own (Chicago’s) net.
  • The other team turns the puck over, and at that moment Gustafsson is in standing in front of his own net.
  • His team gets the puck and starts rushing it up the ice, and Gustafsson not only jumps into the play but out-skated everyone to create an odd-man rush. His teammate sent a nice saucer pass to Gustafsson in the slot that he got on net and he had a good shot that didn’t score.
  • After the shot, Gustafsson skated behind the opposing net after the shot attempt, while the opposition got the rebound and immediately pushed up the ice.
  • Despite starting behind the opposing net in the offensive zone, he skated all the way back as the other team pushed back the other way to get to the puck carrier at the Chicago blueline as he caught up to the play.

That sequence from end to end just perfectly encapsulates what I see in Gustafsson’s game. His skating is incredible, in terms of explosiveness, top speed, and agility. But it also showed just how aggressive he could be offensively, and defensively, using his skating. And not just being aggressive, but being smart at picking his opportunities — it was a rare occurrence for me to see him be aggressive but misjudge the play and wind up way out of position. And the few times it happened, he could get back into the play quicker than anyone.

This means he would show good defensive awareness, specially defending transitions. He will close on opponents in the neutral zone aggressively, including taking the body to stop their momentum. I haven’t seen a lot of prospects play hockey, but he is probably the most aggressive transition defender I can remember seeing. He sticks to players in the neutral zone like glue, and almost no one would be able to get around him. If he needs to recover and get back quickly, he can with his speed. When he sees a potential play developing, he will close on an opposing forward in the neutral zone that doesn’t even have the puck yet, just in case he is about to receive an outlet pass. That way, he’s in perfect position to suffocate the opportunity before it can happen. In some instances, he checks the player as they get the puck so they are immediately stopped dead in their tracks. Despite his size, he gives as good as he gets in those collisions that I saw.

On the offensive side, he’s just as good. On defensive zone faceoffs, Chicago seemed to have a set play with Gustafsson on the ice. He would line up on the strong side, inside the faceoff circle, of whatever center was taking the faceoff for Chicago. If they won the draw, it would go right to him. He would pick up the puck and immediately skate with the puck around the centers to use them as picks and get space. He could then fires a pass to a streaking forward and books it up the ice to jump into the play. Or if he has room, he could just skate out with it himself. He would usually prefer to pass the puck up to a forward to move it up quicker. However, he would then use his speed to catch up to the play and create an odd-man opportunity, as whatever opposing player that was guarding him initially would be left in his dust. This happened several times that I saw.

From Josh Tessler at Smaht Scouting:

In the offensive zone, Gustafsson will jumps to the perimeter when there are puck battles down low. But that isn’t the same on every shift. Sometimes, when puck battles are down low in the opposite corner, he won’t just go to the perimeter, he will go to the hashmarks in medium danger.

One of the attributes that I really enjoy when watching Gustafsson is his hunger for the puck. Given his experience as a forward, he’s got the forward like instincts even when he’s being deployed as a defenseman. He will darts into the zone, sees his opponents setting up in the slot, bursts in the slot to shoot off of quick feed from a teammate. Not every shift, but in a lot of his shifts, you will notice that he will go to medium and/or low danger to provide passing lanes for his teammates. When there are teammates battling along the half-wall, he will give his teammates options up the middle. He will collect a pass from the half-wall, cut through the slot and create lucrative scoring chances at net-front.

Generally speaking, what I liked is that he’s just smart with his decision making. He was very capable of seeing an opportunity to go for it, and when he chose to do so then by god he would go for it. And he would do it at the right times, when he has teammates backing him up or there’s plenty of time for him to get back.

He got an assist in exactly this manner. He saw an opportunity to jump into the play, and after his teammate beat an icing the opposing team scrambled to cover all the other Chicago forwards. However, they left a wide open area in the slot. Gustafsson saw this and skated right into this unguarded area in the slot to present a passing opportunity. His shot was blocked, but bounced to his teammate with an open net for the tap in. He’s #14, the left defenseman in black.

He also scored his first USHL goal in a very similar way:

Remember when I said that very few people are talking about Gustafsson? I wasn’t lying. There are only three blurbs I can find of him that have been written all year. The first was from Josh Tessler above, the second is by the president of his fan club, Will Scouch:

Lukas Gustafsson is a fascinating one. I see a ton of potential with him. Yes, he’s a prep kid who had limited USHL exposure, but relative to other viewings of Steel defenders, Gustafsson should’ve been a mainstay on that team. His lateral mobility to cover ice is excellent. His skill level is very high and he uses it to create space and deceive opponents extremely well. He’s aggressive with his offense, sometimes to his detriment, but I feel like letting him make mistakes and learn, while letting him try to refine the offensive side of the game could be greatly rewarding. He’s apparently returning to be a top defender for the Steel next year, and I expect if he’s not drafted his year, that eyeballs will be on him next year. I just really, really like this guy’s game and as a late round swing, you could do much worse.

The third is from EP Rinkside’s 1000+ page draft resource (paywalled):

Transition’s where Gustafsson’s skill stands out the most. He receives and completes passes with his feet moving. While his precision is lacking at times, the ideas driving his decisions are sound. He manipulates forecheckers with eye and body deception, even in-tight on retrievals. Pressure doesn’t deter him from bringing the puck into the inside or making a quick one-touch pass to an open teammate. He consistently gets the F1 on his back, passes to an open teammate, and accelerates up the ice for the give-and-go. While transition is Gustafsson’s standout dimension, his offence isn’t too far behind. He jumps off the point, filling space and becoming an easy-to-hit passing option. Shot-passes and cross-slot passes make him a consistent creator, even in limited minutes. He sees opportunities developing in advance, and shows some problem-solving skills when the plan changes

THE FLAWS: CONSISTENCY, UNCERTAINTY

The main way that Gustafsson drove play is with his skating, and making the smart and simple plays. He would be capable of pulling off a dangle or high difficulty stretch pass, but his execution in those areas was not as consistent. His passing completion percentage, from manually tracked data, is average and most of that comes from him trying to make more difficult passes. I think that’s why he prefers to make the simple pass to another player, then create chaos and a high danger chance by just outskating everyone when they can’t defend him as aggressively since he doesn’t have the puck. When he gets the puck in close he has a decent shot, and can deke a goalie for a backhand — as his one goal above showed.

The fact that he can pull these plays off not infrequently is a sign, to me, that Gustafsson could really use more time to develop and refine his game. He is definitely going to be a longer-term development project. Though he may not succeed in more difficult passes, he also played infrequently and with few minutes. The other thing I would note is that even if he didn’t succeed on some of the more difficult passes, I can see the logic behind the decision to attempt the pass. It’s not like he was forcing something that wasn’t there a lot of the time. He also has only been playing defense for around four years, and due to COVID he hasn’t played in full-seasons the past two years. He does have some catching up to do in that regard.

Gustafsson could also probably stand to to bulk up. He’s already 181 lbs, which is a good size for being 5’10”, but all prospects need to add muscle and that’s especially true for a defenseman. He gets by physically in the USHL, but at higher levels that muscle may actually help his consistency with his stretch passes and add strength to his shots.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

One thing I want to emphasize is jut how much of a powerhouse the Chicago Steel became in recent years. They won the championship this year after finishing the regular season 9 points ahead of second place, and 17 points ahead of third place. They finished last season 15 points ahead of second place in the regular season, but there was no championship due to COVID.

Last year, they set a USHL record by having eight of their players drafted to the NHL. This year, they have an outside shot of matching that with the likes of Matthew Coronato, Matthew Samoskevich, Ryan Ufko, Jack Bar, and Josh Doan, and Lukas Gustafsson. They may top that number if you count Owen Power, who played for Chicago last year and is eligible for the NHL draft for the first time this year, but he already moved on from Chicago to the NCAA this season.

What made them a powerhouse was the ability of the team, led by Ryan Hardy, to dig up hidden gems and then draft or acquire them. One of the reasons I originally thought to write a profile on Gustafsson is the fact that the Leafs have a strong connection to Chicago and Ryan Hardy specifically. That only intensified when the Leafs actually hired Ryan Hardy to their front office. If there’s anyone who would know what a hidden gem Lukas Gustafsson might be, it’s Hardy.

And I can see the signs that Gustafsson is genuinely a hidden gem. He may not have the points, but he didn’t play that much. Oftentimes, if he got into a game it was as their seventh defenseman. In only one game did I see him get any powerplay time. Despite that, he would generate good chances for himself and his team when he played, and would make an impact through the neutral zone both ways.

Right now, he seems raw in some areas but also remarkably polished. His passing and offensive production could use some improvement, but his defense — especially his transition defense — is already remarkable for his efficiency and effectiveness. By Will Scouch’s manually tracked data, Gustafsson had the highest rate of involvement in defensive transitions and close to the highest in offensive transitions for a defenseman in this draft. His underlying metrics look better than other defenders in this draft, including his teammate Ryan Ufko — who was Chicago’s #1 defenseman this year, and ranked 61st by Bob McKenzie in his most recent rankings.

He’ll be a bit of a project. If he’s drafted this year, it will be likely be in a later round. He won’t join the NCAA until after next season, so it could be another 4-5 years until he’s done college and ready to join the AHL or NHL. But in that time, he’ll start being given more opportunities to play bigger roles. He could get stronger, and even faster. He could refine his abilities even more, and develop into a real hidden gem as a later round pick. He won’t be a top pairing defenseman, but could turn into a Travis Dermott-type defenseman. One who has strong underlying numbers in a bottom pair role thanks to excellent gap control and transitions.

For a fifth and sixth round pick? Getting anyone who can play a role in the NHL is a success. Any player taken that late should be considered a longshot to make the NHL, and that would still be true for Gustafsson. Will Scouch talked him up all year, and I admit to start with I only intended to include him because of the Chicago Steel-Toronto Maple Leafs connection. But after watching his first game, I was just blown away by his skating and aggression. I wound up watching more games of his than any other prospect I’ve written about, because he was just so fun to watch (but also because he played so little in most games). I would love love love love for the Leafs to roll the dice on him in the sixth round.