SUNRISE — If anyone told Gus Forsling he would be a key driver of a deep Florida Panthers playoff run three years ago, he would not have believed it.
The 26-year-old defenseman spent years trying to crack the NHL both with the Chicago and Carolina organizations before being claimed off waivers by the Panthers just before the start of the COVID-shortened 2021 season.
Forsling fit in from the start, his skating ability and awareness in the defensive zone helping him blossom into a top-pairing defenseman on a team one win away from the Eastern Conference finals.
“When you play more minutes, you get to grow your confidence a little bit,” Forsling said. “I am a defense-first guy, I try to take pride in that and whatever I get offensively, I’m happy with it.”
Forsling has given himself a lot more opportunities to score lately.
He has picked his spots to jump up in the play and has two goals in Florida’s first 11 games.
His biggest was a slick wrist shot off of a cross-ice feed from Matthew Tkachuk which tied up a Game 2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“You have to make the right decisions,” Forsling said. “I play against the top guys, too, so I gotta be careful jumping up sometimes. But I want to get up there as much as I can.”
Still, Forsling has been very cautious in his decisions to join the rush.
A lot of it has to do with the defensive mentality he has built up through the years.
As a young defenseman fighting for playing time, his play in the defensive zone was what was being watched when his former teams were making lineup decisions.
“That’s the driver that got him into the league,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“He gets into the league and he knows he is not getting on the ice yet. He knows he can shoot the puck, he knows he can get up the ice but he is not getting on the ice for that. He is getting on the ice for his stick and his ability to close those defensive reads.”
Forsling really started to put all of those tools together as his tenure in Florida progressed — especially in situations the Panthers really leaned on him when Aaron Ekblad went down with injury over these past three seasons.
When Florida jumped at the chance to acquire Tkachuk over the summer, general manager Bill Zito knew he could trust Forsling on the top pairing when he shipped MacKenzie Weegar out along with Jonathan Huberdeau to Calgary.
Ekblad was excited to play with him on that top pair from the outset of the season and they have stuck together ever since.
“Day 1 in training camp, that’s a guy you want to play with. The way he moves his feet is incredible,” Ekblad said.
“Obviously we play well together because of that, right? I am a big, slow defenseman, he is a puck-mover, so it’s been great playing with him. We have great chemistry because of that and being together for the majority of the season and we are just relishing the opportunity to do it.”
Ekblad has handled a lot of the responsibilities offensively on that pairing — even in a down year for his standards — carrying one of the most dangerous slap shots from the back end in the league.
It has left Forsling to do a lot of the work in the back end but he has developed the confidence to do both.
And a lot of that comes from his speed.
“Absolutely, that’s a big thing,” Forsling said. “I’ve been working on my skating a lot and that’s a big thing coming up on the rush and getting back.”
His confidence in his offensive game has been growing steadily over the past two seasons — he hit the 40-point mark and played 82 games for the first time in his career in the regular season — and it has continued to show in the playoffs.
“We think that’s there in his game,” Maurice said. “He’s got a heater, He can absolutely bomb the puck but he’s like so many guys in this room who had to fight their way to the league.
“He’s had to make sure the base of his game was there to get to the NHL and he put on the backburner any offense. It wasn’t going to be offense for him. It’s the stick, it’s the skating, it’s closing the gap and his defensive rate so he made that his bread and butter. There’s some offense there that he’ll grow into once he doesn’t have to prove every day he comes to the rink.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (ATL2)
GAME 5 (Florida Leads 3-1)
- When: Friday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
- TV: TNT
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- First Round Schedule — Game 1: Florida 4, @Toronto 2; Game 2: Florida 3, @Toronto 2; Game 3: @Florida 3, Toronto 2 (OT); Game 4: Toronto 2, @Florida 1; Game 5: Friday at Toronto (TNT), 7; Game 6*: Sunday, May 14 at Florida (TBA); Game 7*:May 16 at Toronto (TNT). (*) – If Necessary
- How They Got Here: Toronto d. Tampa Bay 4-2; Florida d. Boston 4-3
- Season Series (Toronto won 3-1): Maple Leafs 5, @Panthers 4 OT (Jan. 17); @Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 2 (Mar. 23); Panthers 3, @Maple Leafs 2 OT (March 29); Maple Leafs 2, @Panthers 1 OT (April 10)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting