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Gustav Forsling emerges as shutdown defender in sophomore season

Blackhawks defenseman Gustav Forsling and Ducks forward Dennis Rasmussen went out for dinner Sunday, the former teammates easily slipping back into old habits and familiar conversations.

The Swedes became close last season, Forsling’s first in North America, and Rasmussen became something of a big brother and Chicago chaperone for the younger Forsling.

The veteran presences and native tongues of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marcus Kruger made the transition even easier for Forsling, who broke into the league at 20, at least a year ahead of schedule.

Now Forsling and newcomer Anton Forsberg are the only Swedes left.

Pittsburgh's Riley Sheahan and Gustav Forsling work in the corner during a game on Nov. 18. (AP Photo)

‘‘It’s a little different without all of them here,’’ Forsling said. ‘‘It was nice to have those guys here, especially my first year. I still miss them.’’

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He misses them, yes, but he no longer needs them. On and off the ice, Forsling has taken significant strides in his sophomore season. His comfort level, confidence and role all have grown rapidly.

Forsling is averaging more than 19 minutes, up more than four minutes from his rookie season. Perhaps most significant, though, he has taken on a much more important role.

With Hjalmarsson now with the Coyotes, Forsling and Jan Rutta have emerged as the Hawks’ shutdown pairing, usually starting shifts in the defensive zone and frequently matching up against an opponent’s top line. In fact, no Hawks defenseman has been used in a more defensive-focused role than Forsling.

Considering Forsling’s promising rookie season was derailed in February by spotty work in his own end — it was his offensive ability that initially caught coach Joel Quenneville’s eye last fall — it has been a remarkable role reversal.

‘‘I think I’ve taken a big step there, but I think I can take an even bigger step,’’ Forsling said. ‘‘I have more to my game. I feel like I’m still learning every game.’’

Quenneville pointed to Forsling’s offensive skills as the reason for his improved defensive work. His ability to make quick passes out of his own end and to evade oncoming forecheckers when carrying the puck has made him a more effective defender, better able to kill plays and stymie opponents’ transition games. That quickness also allows Forsling to jump up in the attack and lead breakouts himself.

‘‘All parts of his game seem to be improved from last year,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘All those aspects to his game defensively, added with his offensive game, are leading to more trust or confidence or more ice time.”

Rutta, a 27-year-old first-year NHL player, has been impressed.

‘‘[Forsling] is unbelievable,’’ Rutta said. ‘‘He’s 21 years old, and the confidence he has with the puck and his gap — it’s amazing. He’s getting better every game.’’

That confidence wasn’t there last season. At least, not for long. His poise and assertiveness with the puck landed him a roster spot out of training camp, but a strong start eventually yielded to a middling middle of the season. Doubt crept into Forsling’s mind and hesitation into his game, and he finally was demoted to Rockford in February.

‘‘It was about confidence for me last year,’’ Forsling said. ‘‘It’s tough to explain. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you have to dig deep to find it.’’

But with the Hawks parting ways with four of their top six defensemen in the summer, general manager Stan Bowman singled out Forsling as having to take a big step in his second season.

Forsling felt that urgency, too. For him, though, it came from within.

‘‘I put that pressure on myself, not just from the coaches and the [front-office] staff,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to be that guy you can trust. I keep working hard every day, so hopefully I will be that guy.’’

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com