Bengt-Ake Gustafsson is the center of attention at the Washington Capitals' training camp. It is readily apparent he also is a natural center, which compounds a familiar problem.
A year ago, the Capitals' center ice corps included Guy Charron, Dennis Maruk, Ryan Walkter, Rolf Edberg and Dennis Hextall. With the overload, Walter and Edberg often found themselves playing left wing.
When Gustafsson was yanked back from the grasping Edmonton Oilers, it was assumed he would step in at right wing, his former position in Sweden. After a couple of games on the wing during the team's President's Cup in trasquad series, however, he was asked to fill a vacancy at center and it was obvious he belonged there.
Gustafsson led all scorers with six goals in six games, but his puck carrying ability and skillful moves inspired unaccustomed raves from teammates quick to find fault with European imports.
The following conversation took place in the stands as three Capital veterans watched Gustafsson play:
First player: "If you could see things from up here and then make the moves on the ice, everyone would be a superstar."
Second player: "Then everybody would be just as good, just as good, as Gustafsson is now."
Third player: "Look at him, and he's only 21."
Bob Girard, who played left wing alongside Gustafsson in the camp games, said, "You just play your wing and he gets you the puck. He makes any winger look good. And he adjusts so quickly, we never got caught up the ice."
Discussing several newcomers, Coach Danny Belisle cautioned that they had not yet been tested in the NHL. Of Gustafsson, he had no reservations.
"You know he's a hockey player, a real one," Belisle said. "Most guys have one or two options with the puck and if those options close up, he'll lose the puck or stumble. Not this guy He comes up with an option you can't even imagine is there."
As to the key question -- where Gustafsson will play -- General Manager Max McNab avoided the issue by saying, "It's a real benefit to us to have three players like Gustafsson, Walter and Edberg who can play more than one position. We don't have to worry so much about forwards getting hurt."
Gustafsson, a baby-faced youngster who at first glance looks 14 or 15, has no doubt about where he belongs.
"I was a wing in Sweden, but here it is better for me to play center," Gustafsson said in his excellent English. "In Sweden, all the guys play every place (drawing a circle with his finger). Here the wings go along the boards (two straight lines)."
Obviously, someone with Gustafsson's imagination on the ice would be restricted skating the wing in North American style position hockey.
Such was the case in the exhibition opener against Pittsburgh Friday, when he was asssigned a right-wing post with Walter at center and Errol Rausse on the left side. Although Gustafsson played capably in Washington's 7-3 victory, he was noticeably hesitant about drifting toward the middle.
Europeans have had difficulty taking faceoffs against NHL players, who are so adept at cheating. Yet Gustafsson, who rarely faced off in Sweden, quickly adapted and won a majority of the draws in the President's Cup play.
"Some guys are easy to go against," Gustafsson said. "A guy like Hex (Hextall), though, he does different things and I don't think I won any from him."
Gustafsson was whacked hard on the left elbow by a wayward stick Thursday, but returned to action after spending a few minutes with an ice bag. North American hockey can be a rough transition for a smooth-skating European, but Gustafsson has no doubts about his attempt to crack the NHL.
"It's a new experiment for me, a young kid, and it's demanding," Gustafsson said. "I got a good contract with Edmonton, so I take the chance. I never know when the next one will come."
Gustafsson has never been to Washington, although he has spent considerable time in Edmonton. Of that hassle, he said, "It's not my problem. I'm here to play hockey."
The problems, it would seem, are all on management's side. In the Capitals' case, it is a pleasant problem.