Gustav Forsling has become a top defenseman and ‘absolutely’ wants to stay with Florida Panthers

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Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew plenty about Gustav Forsling before the two Swedish defensemen became teammates on the Florida Panthers this season. Ekman-Larsson is a self-described “hockey nerd” and does his best to “keep an eye on all the Swedes in the league.”

But even Ekman-Larsson, five years Forsling’s senior, got a new appreciation for just what Forsling has to offer as a hockey player over the past four months.

“This guy is unbelievable,” Ekman-Larsson said. “His skating, his stick with the puck, ability on the [penalty kill] and can play the power play — just every situation. You can use him anywhere, really. He’s just so good at everything he does.”

Forsling has come a long way since the Panthers picked him up as a waiver claim a week before the start of the 2020-21 season. In four seasons, he has gone from a third-pair player who sometimes saw his partner change nightly to arguably one of the best defensemen in the NHL even if he still flies under the radar nationally.

He worked tirelessly to get to this point, and he is now reaping the benefits of that success.

“I think I’ve come a long way just being an NHL defenseman every night,” Forsling said. “I really have worked on coming ready to play every night and having a very high level of hockey every night. That was the biggest key, especially as the young guy that I was when I came here.”

Now, the goal is to see if Forsling can stay here. The 27-year-old is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Panthers know just how valuable he is to the team, and they knew it when they gave him his three-year contract even before he broke out into the budding star that he is becoming.

Forsling said contract talks have been minimal during the season. He doesn’t want them to distract from the team’s goal of winning a Stanley Cup.

But Forsling has made it clear that he wants to stay with the Panthers, the team that took a chance on him and helped him rise to his current status.

“That’s absolutely my hope,” said Forsling, who last month became a father for the first time to a baby boy named Bo. “I think we’re going to figure something out. I would love to stay. That’s what I’ve been telling them all year long. I want to stay and my family loves it here.”

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) bumps fists with defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) during the third period of a NHL game between the Florida Panthers and the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla. The Florida Panthers won 5-3.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) bumps fists with defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) during the third period of a NHL game between the Florida Panthers and the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Fla. The Florida Panthers won 5-3.

While Forsling’s rise has taken place over the past couple years, it hasn’t come as much of a surprise to Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ longest-tenured defenseman and Forsling’s main partner on the ice.

Ekblad points to three key elements that have been integral to Forsling’s success.

“He’s got the speed, strength and the mind. Those three things together are lethal in this league,” Ekblad said. “He can also throw around a guy that’s 250 pounds If he wanted to. I know he could. I’ve seen him with a shirt off. It’s why we keep our wives away from Gustav.”

Entering Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, Forsling has 22 points (seven goals and 15 assists). More importantly, he has a plus-minus rating of plus-31, meaning the Panthers are outscoring opponents by 31 goals when Forsling is on the ice at even strength or in shorthanded situations.

Even more, Forsling is an almost unheard of plus-91 over the past three years, which is the third-best in the NHL in that span.

“Freaking outrageous,” Ekblad said.

Forsling has built his game and his confidence by learning from some of the Panthers’ top defensemen over the years, from Ekblad to MacKenzie Weegar to Radko Gudas.

“Every night,” Forsling said, “I want to be my best me out there.”

Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) shoots the puck down the ice past Philadelphia Flyers right wing Travis Konecny (11) during the second period of a hockey game on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling (42) shoots the puck down the ice past Philadelphia Flyers right wing Travis Konecny (11) during the second period of a hockey game on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, Fla.

His best effort is out there more often than not.

Through 50 games played this season, Forsling has been on the wrong end of the plus-minus game just six times.

The Panthers have given up just 21 goals during 5-on-5 play when Forsling is on the ice, the fewest goals among 59 defensemen who have had at least 800 minutes of ice time at full strength. According to the advanced hockey statistics website Natural Stat Trick, opponents’ expected goals for in these situations: 31.45, or about 10 more goals than they have actually allowed.

When Forsling is on the ice at full strength, the Panthers have controlled 59.12 percent of shot attempts. That’s the fourth-best mark among that same group of 59 defensemen.

His consistency, Panthers coach Paul Maurice said, might be Forsling’s true biggest strength.

“You’re going to have a hard time finding a bad game,” Maurice said. “You’ll have a game where he maybe wasn’t quite as good as he was the night before, but you’re not going to find much in a way of inconsistency in his game. Maybe a real short answer to your question is to get our team to play like Gus. He knows what he’s good at and he plays it every single night. Beyond that, he trains for it. He sleeps for it. He eats for it. He builds his world around his game to be as good as he is.”