SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are the surprise team of the National Hockey League this season.
Heading into Monday’s games, Florida sat atop not only the Central Division, but the entire NHL. The Cats have had to scrape and claw recently, overcoming injuries to several key players en route to winning a season-best six consecutive games.
The Panthers (26-9-4) have remained incredibly consistent throughout the season, regardless of what the roster looks like.
Puck possession and a quick transition game has fueled Florida’s offense, which is one of the most potent out there. The Cats are averaging 3.31 goals per game, ranking them fourth in the league behind only Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay.
Defensively, the Panthers have kept things tidy in their own end.
Passing lanes are constantly clogged, keeping puck movement to the outside and allowing defenders room to cover cleanly and tend the slot. Defenders have also done well with allowing goaltenders a clear line of sight when the puck is on its way and sweeping away dangerous rebounds from around the crease area.
Florida’s defensive play, which is perhaps the team’s biggest improvement from a season ago, looked to take a major hit when top-pairing rearguard Aaron Ekblad was lost for 12 weeks with a fracture to his left leg or ankle (the team called it a “fracture in his lower extremities”) during a 4-1 win at Dallas on Mar. 28.
The loss of Ekblad, who some were mentioning as a possible Norris Trophy candidate, created a major void in the Panthers defensive corps. Or so we thought.
While conventional wisdom leads one to think that General Manger Bill Zito would look to acquire someone from the outside in order to help mitigate the loss of Ekbald, the answer to replacing the former first-round pick may have been right under our collective noses the whole time.
Enter preseason pickup Gustav Forsling.
The 24-year-old was plucked off the waiver wire by Zito during the first week of training camp in January.
Forsling arrived with 122 NHL games under his belt, but none since 2019, when he played for current Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville during Q’s tenure with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The former 2014 fifth-round pick spent the entire 2019-20 season playing for the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. After being waived by the Carolina Hurricanes in January, Forsling’s NHL future suddenly wasn’t so clear.
That feeling of uncertainty didn’t last long though, as less than 24 hours later it was Zito giving Forsling a reprieve with the Panthers. The young man responded by jumping right in his car and driving overnight from Charlotte to Sunrise.
Forsling was beyond excited for the opportunity that awaited him in South Florida, though he had no idea at the time that was joining a group that would prove to be among the very best in the NHL.
“It’s always tough to say when you’re new,” Forsling said of evaluating his new team. “I didn’t know everybody. I felt like I came to a good group of guys and they really took me in from the start.”
Fast forward three months and now Forsling is being called upon to fill one of the most important roles on the team.
Following Ekblad’s injury, Quenneville tapped Forsling to join MacKenzie Weegar on the Panthers top defensive pairing, the one that Coach Q constantly sends over the boards to neutralize the best offensive talent Florida’s opponents have to offer.
The faith shown by the veteran head coach has, at least so far, been repaid in spades by the young Swede.
“He’s added a different dimension to our back end,” Quenneville said of Forsling after his first game paired with Weegar. “He’s playing a lot of minutes, and we’re using him in different areas.”
The production coming from Florida’s top pairing has also not skipped a beat.
In the four games since joining forces, Weegar and Forsling have combined for eight points (2-6-8), all even strength, on 19 shots on goal.
They’ve also only been on the ice for one goal against, and that was a power-play goal scored by Detroit during Florida’s 4-1-win last Tuesday.
It appears that Forsling may have just needed to be given an opportunity to shine, and he’s taken that opportunity and ran - or skated - with it.
“It’s very easy to play with Weegar,” Forsling said. “He’s been so good. It’s really fun to be out there with him.”
At even strength, an area Weegar has excelled this season, he and Forsling are a combined +16 during the four games that the two have been paired together.
They consistently drive play toward the opposing goaltender, as both are extremely adept at reading the situation and picking the right spots to dig their skates in and force takeaways, whether it be at their own blue line or in the defensive zone.
Pucks are quickly turned over and transitioned into offense, and no pair has been better at pushing the pace than Forsling and Weegar have over the past several games.
It is important to remember, however, that Florida’s last four games have come against Detroit and Columbus, the two bottom teams in the Central Division.
Now, it certainly doesn’t take away from anything the duo has accomplished, but it makes sense to think that they will be put to a more daunting test in the coming days, as four of Florida’s next six games come against Tampa Bay and Carolina, the two teams fighting with the Panthers for the first place in the Central.
“That pair is strong,” Quenneville said. “[Forsling] has been quick to pucks, kills plays [and has a] good gap, but his turning pucks [that are] going behind him, all of a sudden, he turns it up ice and evades forechecking pressure and we get much cleaner exits. He’s playing very well for us and playing important minutes.”
Whether or not this level of play is sustainable will be the question moving forward.
Prior to Ekblad’s injury, Forsling was playing 18:37 per game, which is a decent amount of ice time for a middle-pairing defenseman that gets sprinkled in on special teams.
Over the past four contests, his average ice time has increased by over three minutes a game to 21:42, and that number doesn’t include the season-high 25:34 Forsling played the night Ekblad went down.
“That first matchup is a big ask, but in a short amount of time he’s doing pretty good,” said Quenneville.
For a year that started on shaky ground in Carolina, Forsling has seen his fortunes change significantly, though you could argue he has no one to thank but himself.
Strong, consistent play has given Coach Q and his staff a good bit of confidence in the youngster.
How long it lasts is anyone’s guess, but Forsling has a good work ethic, a mature understanding of the situation and seems genuinely happy to go along for the ride.
“It’s [been] a crazy year,” he said. “It can go fast in hockey, so you’ve just got to enjoy it.”