Two days ago, Caps senior writer Mike Vogel reported that Anton Gustafsson (the Capitals' first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft) would be returning to Sweden because "he is not enjoying hockey at this point in his career." This may come as a surprise to some, that such a highly touted prospect with such strong ties to the organization would be leaving North America. In retrospect, it is not such a big surprise, especially after watching Gustafsson in Development Camp and Rookie Camp. Baby Gus showed all of the skill and hockey sense that got him drafted, but his heart wasn't in it., as evidenced by his lack of attacking the puck and lacsidasical forechecking. It also didn't help that he had such lofty expectations to live up to- bearing the name Gustafsson carries a lot of weight in both Sweden and in Washington, DC.
Mere weeks after the 2008 draft, Gustafsson appeared at the Washington Capitals Development Camp at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, VA, where a picture of his father graced the wall of the facility along with other Capitals greats. He didn't make it past the first day, injuring his back after wind sprints, an injury that cost him quite a bit of his 2008-09 season. He was limited to 25 out of 45 games in the Swedish second league, the Hockey Allsvenskan, with Bofors IK Karlskoga in his hometown. He managed 10 points (6-4-10), good for 12th on the team, in what amounted to a stalled year of development for an 18-year old living in the shadows of his father's successes after coaching the Swedish National team to the 2006 Olympic Gold Medal and the IIHF World Championship Gold Medal. One of the few bright spots early in his career was signing his first NHL contract on May 14.
In an effort to improve his standing, Gustafsson returned to Development Camp the next season in much better shape and lasted three days before he crashed into the goal post, suffering a gash and a concussion. He eventually returned to Sweden being loaned to Borås HC and had a much better season, playing 34 of 45 games and posting 18 points (6-12-18), good for 9th on the team. At the conclusion of the season in Sweden, Gustafsson saw action in one AHL game with the Hershey Bears. He posted 2 assists and a +2 rating, but he was not retained by the team as they approached the playoffs.
During his 2010 campaign, Gustafsson reported to Capitals training camp, and was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears not long after. From there he was sent down to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, although rather reluctantly: "We're not sure what's going on with Anton, the Capitals assigned him to us, but he hasn't shown up yet" South Carolina Stingrays coach Cail MacLean said not long after the Bears made their final cuts
After all of the injuries and the frustrations of not playing at the highest levels, it's understandable for him to leave hockey as so many young men do. Most leave with little fanfare, they are cut by one team after another and they finally leave hockey for good when the money runs out, if they make the pro levels at all. Some of them have family businesses or college degrees, something outside of hockey to turn to when the injuries get too painful or the travel gets too hard. Many leave hockey when they get married and have kids and their wives don't want to change teams and cities every season. Most of them are happy and proud to have played hockey for a living at some point in their lives and can walk away with nobody thinking less of them. Gustafsson doesn't have that option.
If Anton Gustafsson had been drafted by another NHL team, or perhaps lower in the draft, he could have easily skated under the radar more than he could here in DC. His father wasn't just a former Capital, he was one of only two Capitals to play their entire 9-plus year career in Washington (the other is Michal Pivonka). Bengt Gustafsson played 629 games in DC between 1979 and 1989 and ranks 5th in Capitals history in career goals (196), 6th in assists (359), and 5th in points (555), plus another 28 points in 32 playoff games. After leaving the NHL, he played several more years in Europe.
And Bengt Gustafsson (right) wasn't just a good player, he was a good player when he was just 21, setting team rookie records for most assists (38) and points (60). His assist record from 1980 wasn't broken for 26 years until Alex Ovechkin hit 54 in 2005-06. That's a lot to live up to, and the funny thing is Anton has all of the skills and hockey sense to be a second-line forward in the NHL. Like many kids, he didn't put in the offseason effort at first, but even when he did he kept getting hurt. At this point in his hockey career, he is just going through the motions, and talent alone will only get you so far.