How did Gustav Forsling go from Canucks castoff to being a top-pairing defender in the Stanley Cup Finals?
Photo credit:© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
3 months ago
The 2023 Stanley Cup Finals kick off tonight between the Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights.
More importantly, the series that will determine this year’s ultimate hockey champion will feature a former Vancouver Canucks draft pick on either side: Gustav Forsling for the Panthers, and Ben Hutton for the Golden Knights.
The Hutton side of this story isn’t particularly interesting. He showed good early on in his Canucks career, earning some looks in the top-four, but eventually settled down into the skillset of someone better suited for the bottom pairing. Like most players in that role, Hutton started to bounce around a little.
The Canucks let him go without a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019, after which Hutton signed with the Los Angeles Kings for a single season. He split the next season between the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, and then signed on with the Golden Knights at the start of the 2021/22 campaign. And that’s where he’d stay, earning a subsequent two-year extension. Despite being a de facto seventh or eighth defender, Hutton has managed to get into 89 regular season and two playoff games for Vegas, and still seems to always be having a terrific time.
Forsling’s saga, on the other hand, is a little more fascinating. Both in where he ended up, and in how he got there.
GM Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks selected Forsling from Linkoping HC Jr. with the 126th overall pick in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft (the same one in which they selected both Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann in the first round).
At the time, like most fifth round picks, Forsling was considered a longshot, and had a player profile consisting of the usual cliches: above-average skating, good first pass, that sort of stuff.
But that started to change almost immediately.
Forsling cracked the SHL roster of Linkoping next fall for his Draft+1 season, still in his late teens, and quickly began to impress. Even then, Forsling was playing decent minutes against fully-grown professional hockey players and more than holding his own.
By January of 2015, Forsling’s stock as a prospect had undoubtedly risen, and he was beginning to get mentions in the local press. Unfortunately, that’s also the exact point at which Forsling’s “career” with the Canucks came to an end.
Before he even had the chance to complete his Draft+1 season or sign an entry-level contract, Benning and the Canucks traded Forsling’s signing rights on January 29, 2015 to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Adam Clendening, a 22-year-old NHL rookie who was at that point splitting time between Chicago and Rockford.
It’s probably about time to give a light background on Clendening here. The right-handed defender had entered his own draft year of 2011 with a moderate amount of hype and had wound up selected at 36th overall by the Blackhawks out of Boston University.
Clendening saw a moderate uptick in his production at BU for his Draft+1 year, and then signed his ELC and joined the Rockford Icehogs for the 2012/13 campaign. Clendening would go on to play the next two seasons for Chicago’s AHL affiliate, posting consecutive 46- and 59-point seasons, which are pretty good numbers for a rookie and sophomore pro defender.
But Clendening also showed some significant holes in his game, particularly in his own end, that convinced the Blackhawks he still needed more development, and so it took until the 2014/15 season for Clendening to get his first taste of NHL action with the Blackhawks, which amounted to four games.
Again, Clendening spent the bulk of the first half of the 2014/15 season in Rockford, where he appeared to stagnate. At the time of his trade to Vancouver, Clendening was sitting at 13 points in 38 AHL games, a major step down in production (though this could have been at least partially due to an increased focus on defence).
In any case, Clendening arrived in Vancouver and things did not improve much from there. He played 17 games for the Canucks throughout the rest of the year, notching five points. He played 11 more regular season games for the Utica Comets, posting five points, and then 23 more games and eight more points in their run to the AHL Finals.
That summer, Clendening was included as an extra piece in the trade that sent Nick Bonino and a second round pick to Pittsburgh in exchange for Brandon Sutter and a third.
And that’s the whole story. Now, almost a decade later, Clendening is still spending the majority of his time in the AHL, and has managed just 69 NHL games with five other franchises in the interim.
So back to Forsling.
He certainly made a quicker transition to NHL readiness than Clendening did, playing 38 games for Chicago and 30 more for Rockford in his North American debut season of 2016/17. Right off the bat, Forsling gained accolades for a steadiness that seemed beyond his years, and for seeming like a “safe option” out on the ice, even if he didn’t bring much offence to the table.
But safe and steady didn’t necessarily translate to Forsling becoming an everyday NHL player. He continued to split games between Chicago and Rockford throughout his first three seasons; 38/30 in 2016/17, 41/18 in 2017/18, and 43/5 in 2018/19.
By that point, it looked at though Forsling might just be a full-time Blackhawk. But it was not meant to be.
On June 24, 2019, Forsling was traded for the second time. He was dealt, alongside fellow unsigned RFA Anton Forsberg, to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Calvin de Haan and Aleksi Saarela.
The Hurricanes had just made quite a coup. Unfortunately for them, it wound up being a coup for another team entirely.
Forsberg would continue to bounce around the league. Saarela never amounted to much, and de Haan had his career waylaid by constant injury.
Forsling, meanwhile, was an early cut in Carolina Hurricanes Training Camp 2019. This time around, he was old enough to hit the waiver wire, but he cleared, and wound up spending the entire 2019/20 campaign back in the AHL, where he posted 26 points in 57 games for the Charlotte Checkers.
The next season didn’t start until January of 2021 and, again, Forsling was cut from the Hurricanes and placed on waivers. This time, the Florida Panthers put in a claim.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Forsling’s time in the AHL had come to an end. Through 43 games with the Panthers that season, Forsling notched 17 points, scoring at a rate he had not achieved since leaving Sweden. More importantly, however, Forsling showed himself to be surprisingly apt at handling difficult matchups and playing responsibly in his own end, and by the playoffs that year, he was pretty firmly ensconced in their top-four.
The 2021/22 campaign could be considered a breakout year for Forsling. He played the third-most minutes for the Panthers behind Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar, further solidified his two-way reputation, and posted 37 points in 71 games, which is a level of scoring that he had quite simply never shown before, even back in the Swedish Junior league.
Somehow, the player that Forsling had become was significantly better than even the most optimistic of draft profiles would have painted him as way back in 2014. And he had become that player while bouncing around from team-to-team and from league-to-league.
That year, Forsling was one of the better Panthers in the playoffs before they bowed out in Round Two. And that just set him up for a breakout-on-top-of-a-breakout in 2022/23.
The Panthers traded Weegar in the 2022 offseason, and Ekblad continued to regress, which meant that for the 2022/23 season, Forsling and the upcoming Brandon Montour became the team’s top-two defenders.
Forsling spent more than 60% of his even-strength ice-time as Ekblad’s partner, where he helped keep the former franchise player from entirely imploding. The results were a career-high 41 points in 82 games, but the real results were a Panthers roster that was now much more balanced and much better prepared for the postseason.
Which brings us to today. Forsling is 26 years old. He’ll turn 27 on June 12, which is not too far off from being nine years to the day that he was drafted by the Canucks.
Forsling has played in all 16 playoff games for the Panthers thus far. His average ice-time of 26:44 is second on the Panthers to Montour and sixth overall for all playoff players. His six points might seem like a bit of a step back in production, but that’s probably because of the unholy defensive load Forsling is also carrying all the while.
In fact, few players in the league play more of their minutes against opposing top lines than Forsling, who has become a true top-pairing defender in every sense of the word as these playoffs have progressed.
And that’s the whole story. One stupid, short-sighted trade for a prospect of depreciating value many years ago, and now the Canucks have to watch their former castaway propel his team to the very brink of ultimate glory.
How could that not sting?
We don’t want to take the focus away too much from Forsling’s story, and the amazing amount of progress he has made as an individual. We’re sure he doesn’t spend too much of his time thinking about himself as a “former Canucks draft pick.”
This is half a celebration of the player Forsling became, decidedly against the odds, and half food for thought as to what might have been. Although “food for thought” might not be the best term to use, since food is typically pleasant to put in the mouth. Maybe this is more “broken glass for thought.”
Either way, the 2023 Stanley Cup Finals begin tonight, and Gustav Forsling will be one of the most important players on the ice.
Who could honestly say that they ever saw that coming?
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