SUNRISE, Fla. – Florida Panthers defenseman Gustav Forsling comes across as a very easygoing 24-year-old.
When asked earlier this week if he prefers to be called Gus or Gustav, the young Swede just shrugged and smiled.
“Whatever you want, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Gus is fine.”
Forsling arrived in South Florida a week into training camp after being claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Aside from battling a couple of minor injuries, Forsling has been a mainstay in the Panthers lineup, mostly as a middle-pairing defender that has received the occasional power play shift.
He made a good impression on the coaching staff right off the bat and was on the ice for Opening Night.
An upper-body injury suffered in his third game of the season caused Forsling to sit out the following nine contests, but as soon as he was healthy, he was right back in Florida’s lineup.
“Injuries are gonna come,” Forsling said. “You just have to keep working every day to keep your body fresh.”
A fifth-round selection of the Vancouver Canucks all the way back in 2014, Forsling didn’t get to make his NHL debut until the 2016-17 season, then with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Yes, the same Blackhawks that were being led by current Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville.
“He had two unbelievable training camps where twice we thought he was our best player in training camp, not just on defense, and on some pretty good teams, so that was saying a lot for what his abilities are or were,” Quenneville said of Forsling. “The consistency of putting it all together over the course of a year was the challenge, and I think he’s at that stage now where (he has) that commitment of improving his conditioning to what it’s going to take to be a pro from start to finish.”
Forsling played parts of two years under Quenneville before the two would temporarily go their separate ways, with Q being let go by Chicago during the 18-19 season and Forsling getting traded to Carolina the following summer.
Now reunited in Sunrise, Forsling feels his past familiarity with Quenneville and the way he coaches gave him an advantage after being claimed by Florida.
“I just know how he wants to play, and his system, and how he wants you to play,” Forsling said of Coach Q. “As a D man, I came in with only a week or two left in camp, so that really helped me out.”
Help it did, as Forsling immediately looked comfortable playing in Quenneville’s aggressive, puck-possession system that relies heavily on defenders pushing the pace both in their own zone and offensively.
His strong puck handling skills and high hockey IQ - knowing when to jump up into a play and when to hang back - has Florida’s coaching staff feeling very comfortable deploying the young rearguard.
“We’re very happy with Fors’ contributions and his consistency,” Quenneville said. “He does a lot of good things defending-wise, as far as his gap, he’s quick in the puck area, his play selection is safe, and I think he’s involved and really been a part of the attack when exiting our zone.”
For Forsling, who spent all of last season with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte, he’s just glad to have the opportunity to play at the highest level again.
Hearing his explanation, it sounds like a season in the minors was a wake-up call of sorts.
“Coming from last season when I played the whole year in the American league, I’m just excited to be here and get the opportunity again,” Forsling said.
If talent and skill on the ice was not an issue, there must have been something else missing from Forsling’s game that kept him from being an NHL regular.
Working with Forsling again after a couple of years away from each other, Coach Q said he absolutely noticed a difference in his game, and it stems from hours and hours of exhausting work off the ice.
“He really worked hard over the last year or so on strengthening his body and his conditioning,” Quenneville said. “It seemed like he took that to whole new level. His assets were always in the right place and I think he added that element of being stronger, and that strength has added some quickness and some toughness and hardness in the puck areas.”
Whether it comes from the previous experience with Q’s style and systems or just the way he’s played in a Panthers sweater, Forsling has fit in perfectly with Quenneville and his staff in Sunrise.
The on-ice results have begun to show through, as well.
After going scoreless in each of his first 11 outings in Florida, Forsling has a recorded goal and three assists over his past four games.
“It’s good when you have confidence and feel like the coaches trust you, and you get to play your game,” Forsling said.
That comfort level has allowed Forsling to settle nicely into South Florida, a place he may be calling home for the foreseeable future.
Forsling will be a restricted free agent when the season ends, and the Panthers will get to decide whether they want to hang on to the seemingly ascending defenseman.
Based on the way he’s been playing, it might behoove Forsling to continue familiarizing himself with his new tropical home.
“Me and my girlfriend really like it here,” he said. “We’re really excited to be here.”