Gustav Forsling took a pass from Brian Campbell and wound up for the standard power-play slap shot from the right point —just unleash and see what happens, maybe a tip, maybe a rebound. But while Red Wings defenseman Alexey Marchenko and goaltender Jimmy Howard braced for the big shot, Forsling downshifted on his downswing and slid a nifty pass to Artem Anisimov at the top of the crease for an easy back-door tap-in.
It was the kind of play Duncan Keith makes. The kind of play Joel Quenneville might deem “special,” his highest level of praise.
“I don’t like using that term loosely or too often,” Quenneville said. “So we’ll call him real good.”
OK, real good. And really ahead of schedule. At just 20 years old, Forsling has been arguably the most impressive player in Blackhawks camp, and certainly the blue-line standout. The assumption always has been Forsling would go back to Sweden for another year, and then have a chance at cracking the lineup next fall. But Forsling is making quite a case to stay. He’s a smooth skater, a slick playmaker, smart with the puck and sound in his own end.
It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but he very well could be one of the Hawks’ best four or five defensemen right now. And Quenneville seems to agree. Based on the way Quenneville talked about him on Thursday, Forsling appears to have made the team.
“He’s got great potential,” Quenneville said. “It’s been a fun — I don’t even want to use the word project. But he’s a great asset organizationally. We feel his progression in a short amount of time here has been outstanding.”
Even Forsling, who has two assists in four preseason games, has been pleasantly surprised. At prospect camp back in July, he sounded both resigned and perfectly happy to go back to Sweden for another year. He struck a different tone on Thursday, saying he’d prefer any role on the Hawks, no matter how small, to 20-plus minutes a night back in Sweden.
“I think I played four pretty solid games,” he said. “It feels pretty good, and I get more comfortable every game. I’m trying not to think about [going back to Sweden]. I’m just here to do my best and let them make the decision.”
The problem is, there’s nowhere for him to play.
By signing Brian Campbell, Michal Kempny and Michal Rozsival to one-year contracts this summer, general manager Stan Bowman solidified his blue line, turning a weak spot into a strength. But with those three guys, plus veterans Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Hawks already have seven defensemen who aren’t going anywhere.
Rozsival isn’t likely to play much, with Bowman even saying the Hawks asked too much of him last season, when he played 51 games. He’s here as much to ease fellow Czech Kempny’s transition to the United States as much as anything. But even if Forsling were the No. 7, and Rozsival the No. 8, it’s hard to envision the young Swede getting a lot of ice time. And even when he would play, it’s unlikely he’d see top-four minutes with Keith, Hjalmarsson, Campbell and Seabrook ahead of him.
Or would he?
“I’m not getting into the names and who would be in and out of the lineup,” Quenneville said. “But if [Forsling] is going to be here, he’d be playing.”
In other words, if van Riemsdyk and Kempny aren’t already looking over their shoulder, they should be.
The prudent thing to do seems to be to send Forsling back to Sweden, where he’d get a full season of playing a major role. After all, next year, the Hawks will need him. This is almost certainly Rozsival’s last go-around, Campbell will be a 38-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Kempny (a restricted free agent next summer) remains a relatively unknown commodity.
But Forsling’s play has been so impressive, so eye-opening, that the Hawks appear ready to move things up a year and throw him into the mix right away. And that’s fine with Forsling, who has proven to both his team and himself that he’s NHL ready.
“It’s a goal I have to play here some day,” he said. “If it’s now, or next year, or the year after that, I don’t know. But, of course, I’m striving to take a spot here, now. That’s all I’m thinking about.”