Blackhawks still have faith in young defenseman Forsling

 
 
Updated 5/3/2018 4:39 PM
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  • Defenseman Gustav Forsling showed plenty of promise in his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also finished both campaigns in the minor leagues with the Rockford IceHogs. See why the Hawks are still high on the 21-year-old and why it may have been better if he'd never seen an NHL game at all.

    Defenseman Gustav Forsling showed plenty of promise in his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also finished both campaigns in the minor leagues with the Rockford IceHogs. See why the Hawks are still high on the 21-year-old and why it may have been better if he'd never seen an NHL game at all. Photo courtesy of Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs

  • Defenseman Gustav Forsling showed plenty of promise in his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also finished both campaigns in the minor leagues with the Rockford IceHogs. See why the Hawks are still high on the 21-year-old and why it may have been better if he'd never seen an NHL game at all.

    Defenseman Gustav Forsling showed plenty of promise in his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also finished both campaigns in the minor leagues with the Rockford IceHogs. See why the Hawks are still high on the 21-year-old and why it may have been better if he'd never seen an NHL game at all. Photo courtesy of Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs

For the young, ultra-talented professional athlete, there's nothing more important -- or fragile -- than confidence.

Rushing a quarterback, shortstop, point guard, winger or defenseman into a primary role early in his career can lead to damaging long-term effects if things spiral out of control.

Oftentimes, it's best to allow these prodigies to be groomed by a veteran or to cut their teeth in the minor leagues. That's not always easy because of the "win-now" demands coming from management and a team's fan base.

This leads us to the interesting case of the Blackhawks' Gustav Forsling, who was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs on Jan. 21 and is now trying to help the team advance through the Calder Cup playoffs. Rockford swept the Chicago Wolves in the first round last week and begins a best-of-seven series against Manitoba on Friday.

In Forsling, the Hawks possess a defenseman who can do it all, and he showed plenty of promise at times over the past two seasons. Playing 21-24 minutes a game, Forsling really shined early this season by combining with Jan Rutta to shut down opponents' top lines.

He also made the United Center explode by scoring the game-winning goal against Buffalo on Dec. 8 when his shot from just inside the blue line skidded between Robin Lehner's legs with 4.9 seconds left on the clock.

"He's got dynamic mobility," said Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton. "He's excellent at defending the rush.

"The other part he has is he can move the puck extremely well. He can beat one, two, three, four forecheckers with one pass. That's a great weapon to have when you look down your bench."

Soon after that pulsating victory over the Sabres, however, Forsling and Rutta found themselves on the wrong end of ugly turnovers and odd-man rushes toward their own net. In his last 11 games with the Hawks, Forsling had just 2 assists and was a minus-8.

So for the second time in as many years, the Hawks decided Forsling needed more seasoning and sent him to Rockford.

"I don't look at it as a negative," GM Stan Bowman said last week. "We just want to make sure that he's still playing that confident all-around game as opposed to just surviving at the NHL level. We could have kept him up all year and he probably would have just simplified his game. ... But we don't want him to do that."

Colliton agrees.

"It's a feather in his cap that he got (to the NHL) as early as he did. I don't think the perception of him should be negative because he's here. I don't think that's fair."

Five years ago, there's no way the 21-year-old Forsling would have been on a loaded Hawks blue line that included Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya. But with the salary cap ravaging Bowman's roster, Forsling and plenty of others young players got a chance to show what they could do at the NHL level.

At times they looked fantastic. But as time went on, they struggled.

"That's what happens when you put young kids in situations where they have to play big minutes against top-end guys," said 30-year-old Cody Franson, who understands the cap is why these players are being rushed along instead of maturing in the AHL.

Franson said forcing young D-men to face the Egveni Malkins and Sidney Crosbys every night can have "a domino effect" on their confidence.

"I was fortunate," Franson said. "When I came up (with Nashville), I didn't get a game my first two years. I learned everything I needed to in the AHL.

"And when I got up top, (coach) Barry Trotz played me in situations that he thought I could handle. That first season, I was playing 15, 16, 17 minutes a night against third and fourth lines with a defenseman that was an older guy that I was learning from.

"That allowed me to develop properly."

Bowman conceded that Forsling may not have been totally ready two seasons ago, but the Hawks felt he earned a chance after an impressive training camp. Forsling ended up playing 38 games in Chicago and 30 for Rockford. This season, the numbers were similar -- 41 games in Chicago and 21 for Rockford (he missed over a month with an injury).

Forsling, who will be a restricted free agent after next season, said he's more relaxed since arriving in Rockford. He also feels like he proved he can defend the best players at the highest level, but added: "I have to do it every game and (against) every single line. That's the biggest key for my success."

And make no mistake -- Bowman, Colliton and Franson all believe Forsling will have plenty of success in the NHL very soon.

Said Bowman: "He's got the savvy of how to break plays up. But he's (also) got the feet, the hands, the shot, and he can make plays up the ice. A player has to be able to do that if they're going to be in the top four. They can't just be a defensive guy.

"He's got that. It's just a matter of putting it all together."

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