The talented Chicago Blackhawks defenseman showed plenty of potential in abbreviated rookie season, but doubts remain over Gustav Forsling’s ability to physically compete in the NHL
“Get a life!” exclaimed my long-neglected spouse when she busted me streaming the single-camera podcast (with no audio) of last September’s 2016 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. Enthralled by the play of Chicago Blackhawks rookie prospect Gustav Forsling, I shrugged her off with a perfunctory “sorry,” and went back to taking notes on the highly rated 20-year-old Swedish defenseman who appeared to have a real shot of cracking the Blackhawks’ opening night roster.
With Chicago’s season now just a lingering — and frustrating — memory, we’re reviewing the play of each of the Blackhawks and grading their performance for the 2016-17 season. Here’s a look at Forsling.
2016-17 regular-season statistics: 38 games, 2 goals, 3 assists, 5 points, plus-3 rating, Corsi-for 48.8 percent (even strength).
2016-17 postseason statistics: Did not play.
During the prospects tournament, Forsling played a step above the competition with remarkable vision, play recognition and stickhandling skill that always seemed to put him in position to kill a play and turn the puck back towards the offensive zone. He also displayed a potent wrister from the point that would become his signature shot throughout the season.
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Sure enough, Forsling made his NHL debut with the Blackhawks on opening night against the St. Louis Blues, and notched his first point four games later against Columbus with a wrist shot from the left point that deflected to Richard Panik, who managed to bang it past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in a 3-2 loss to the Blue Jackets.
Forsling skated in the ‘Hawks’ first seven games of the season, then was sidelined for two games after sustaining a minor injury against Calgary in late October.
He was back in action Nov. 1 in a 5-1 win over the Flames, and posted a modest three-game point streak in mid-November that culminated in his first career NHL goal — a laser shot from the point in the ‘Hawks’ 3-2 overtime victory against Montreal.
His second — and last — goal of the season also came on a wrister from the point, on Feb. 4 in the ‘Hawks’ 5-3 win over Dallas. In fact, two of Forsling’s three assists last season were point shots that a teammate was able to convert for a score.
Forsling was a key member of the ‘Hawks’ powerplay unit, and his 35:33 minutes on the man advantage ranked fourth-highest among Chicago blueliners. He also played a smart game, taking only two minor penalties in 38 regular season games.
A healthy scratch in five games during December, Forsling was sent down to Rockford on Jan. 6 when it became clear he was having difficulty competing with bigger, stronger players in the NHL. After that, he appeared in only six more regular-season games with the Blackhawks, and during the playoff series against Nashville was a so-called Black Ace — listed on the active roster, but did not play.
So what went wrong? Listed at 6-feet and 180 pounds, Forsling is undersized for today’s NHL, and his season stats reflect the difficulty he had fighting to control the puck and establish position around the crease. Despite skillful skating and deft stickhandling, Forsling usually emerged on the losing end of 50-50 pucks and net-front battles, and his (even-strength) Corsi-for of 48.8 percent was second-lowest of ‘Hawks blueliners — especially egregious since he was protected by starting 58 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Also alarming is Forsling’s 27:5 ratio of giveaways-to-takeaways, the worst of all ‘Hawks defensemen (though Brian Campbell was barely a shade better). He was also pretty much the anchorman in average ice time (14:35), hits (16) and blocked shots (17).
If you consider “Incomplete” a cop-out, write your congressman. But Forsling only played 38 regular-season games, and I’m not ready to write him off with less than a half-season’s worth of games under his skates. Just 21 years old (on June 12), he’s still young with a ton of talent that just might break through with some added bulk, physical conditioning and more professional seasoning in Rockford.
Factors that may work against him in Chicago include a surplus of left-handed defensemen and Stan Bowman’s need to move some assets this summer. I still think Forsling has the potential to be an everyday player in the NHL, preferably with the ‘Hawks.