Capitals Center Anton Gustafsson Battles Injuries at Development Camp

Caps prospect Anton Gustafsson has impressive bloodlines, but he has struggled to stay healthy the past two years.
Caps prospect Anton Gustafsson has impressive bloodlines, but he has struggled to stay healthy the past two years. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Washington Capitals anticipated getting an extended look at Anton Gustafsson during development camp this week in Arlington. Those plans, however, will have to wait, again.

Gustafsson, the son of the former Capitals great Bengt Gustafsson and a 2008 first-round draft pick, suffered a concussion and a nasty gash above his left eye when he tumbled into the goal post during an intra-squad scrimmage Wednesday and won't be returning to the ice, he said yesterday.

So for the second straight summer, Gustafsson will not get the chance to showcase his skills in the camp-concluding scrimmage this morning, and team officials will be left wondering exactly how much he has progressed. Last July, he aggravated a back injury an hour into the first practice of development camp and was unable to continue.

"I feel bad for him; he's had a rough go of it," General Manager George McPhee said. "There's not much you can do about it. You let them play, and sometimes they get banged up and sometimes they don't. We just hope that we get by this and he's okay for a while."

The concussion is Gustafsson's second this year and it compounds an injury-plagued two-year span that's also seen him miss playing time because of a herniated disc, a sprained knee and a broken finger. It also puts a damper on a week the 19-year-old hoped signaled the start of a smooth transition from Sweden to North America. He said he has informed Capitals officials that he wants to opt out of his contract in Sweden and to play here next season, even though he knows that likely means beginning his NHL career with the minor league Hershey Bears.

"I'm going to stay," said Gustafsson, who notched six goals and four assists in 25 games with Bofors IK of Sweden's second division last season. "I want to learn [how] to play here and how everything around here works. It's pretty different compared to Sweden."

When healthy, there's a lot to like about Gustafsson, who is projected to be a two-way center capable of handling top-six minutes in the NHL. He's listed at 6 feet 2, 194 pounds, explodes down the ice with a smooth skating stride, dishes out opportunistic hits and boasts impressive bloodlines. His father amassed 196 goals and 555 points in nine seasons with the Capitals from the 1979-80 season through 1988-89 and is now the head coach of Sweden's national team.

"We have pretty much the same hockey sense," the younger Gustafsson said. "That's probably the biggest thing you can compare [about] us. But I have pretty much a better shot. He was a little bit bigger than I am. But I'm [also] a faster skater than he was."

Soon after arriving in Arlington this week, Gustafsson said he "finally" felt 100 percent and looked forward "to showing everybody who didn't see me last year why they picked me." And for three days, he got that opportunity.

Gustafsson's talent was immediately apparent. But he also looked tentative at times, sitting back when he should have been on the attack. In two scrimmages, he had a handful of impressive backchecks but also had mustered only one assist against players his age.

"The one thing about Swedish hockey is they really think defense," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "What I've noticed about him, and I talked to him about it, he's getting chances to go in a forecheck and he's sitting back because he's used to thinking, 'Trap.' It's nothing that changes overnight, it comes through development and that's why we're happy he's over here. We want to see him be a little more aggressive."

But Boudreau will have to wait until training camp in September to get another look at a player he expects to someday join the organization's other Swedish center, Nicklas Backstrom, in Washington.

Gustafsson was hurt when he crashed the net in the second scrimmage of the week. He plowed headfirst into the post as several players converged on the crease simultaneously. The collision forced his visor into his face with such force it opened a cut over his eye that required 10 stitches. It also left him dizzy and complaining of headaches.

Due to the number of injuries Gustafsson has suffered, and their severity, he's starting to gain a reputation for being injury prone, a reputation McPhee said is not entirely fair -- yet.

"Not yet," McPhee said. "I don't know if you can call the injury [on Wednesday] an issue of durability. He got hit pretty hard. We just hope it doesn't continue."

Capitals Notes: Forward Stefan Della Rovere (shoulder) is not expected to suit up for today's scrimmage, which is set to begin at 10 a.m. . . . The Capitals traded defenseman Keith Seabrook, a second-round pick in 2006, to the Calgary Flames for future considerations.


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