The training wheels are off for Blackhawks defenseman Gustav Forsling

BOSTON — As a 20-year-old kid in a foreign land, it wasn’t hard for Gustav Forsling to find a piece of home last season. He could get defensive tips in Swedish from Niklas Hjalmarsson, just a couple locker stalls to his left. He could get the lowdown on some popular Swedish haunts around town from Marcus Kruger. And he could make Swedish tacos and watch movies or TV every Friday night — fredagsmys, it’s called back home — with his best pal on the team, Dennis Rasmussen.

As a 21-year-old entering his second professional season, Forsling doesn’t need those crutches quite as much. Good thing, too, because they’re all gone. Hjalmarsson is in Arizona. Kruger is in Carolina. Rasmussen is in Anaheim. Johnny Oduya is in Ottawa. Unless Erik Gustafsson can somehow crack the opening-night roster, Forsling is the last Swede standing from last season, with Anton Forsberg the only Swedish newcomer.

“It feels a little bit weird,” Forsling said. “I lost some good friends there. It was good to have them my first year, though. They taught me a lot.”

The training wheels are off for Forsling, on and off the ice. With five of the Hawks’ top seven defensemen from last season out of the picture, Forsling is expected to be an everyday player this season. He thinks he’s ready.

Gustav Forsling (right) celebrates a goal with Brent Seabrook and Richard Panik on Feb. 11. (AP Photo)

“Everybody has to take another step,” Forsling said. “We have a lot of good ‘D’s here, so it’s not going to be a problem.”

This was the year Forsling was supposed to cross the ocean and come to Chicago. But Forsling surprised both coach Joel Quenne-ville and himself with his standout camp last fall, and essentially forced his way into the lineup. But after a strong start, the speed and physical nature of the NHL started to catch up with Forsling. He was by no means overmatched but struggled to consistently perform at the level that initially earned him a spot on the team.

He ended up playing 38 games with the Hawks, posting two goals and three assists. He was pretty much an everyday player for the first three months of the season before spending the bulk of the second half in the AHL.

Maybe Forsling would have been better off with another full season in Sweden, or even in Rockford. But Quenneville has no regrets about throwing Forsling into the fire.

“You can’t forecast that,” Quenne-
ville said. “A guy comes in and he plays so well, it was tough not keep him on our team. Some young guys are going to have a confidence thing [when] all of a sudden you’re exposed to bigger guys, stronger guys. But that experience of playing meaningful minutes in the latter part of the year in the American League was healthy for him.”

Forsling, of course, was upset at the demotion at the time. But looking back on it, he realizes the AHL stint was good for him, as he got to play a larger role.

“You always want to be up in the big league,” Forsling said. “But I got to play both power play and [penalty kill], do all that stuff. It was a great experience to not just play one thing, to keep developing my game.”

Quenneville said Forsling is having another “real good camp,” pointing to his assertiveness, strength, quickness, and defensive positioning. He hasn’t yet nailed down a partner yet — he skated with Connor Murphy on Monday night in Boston, and paired with Cody Franson and Ville Pokka in two other preseason games — but no matter who he’s with, and what language they speak, Forsling is comfortable and confident. And planning to stick around all year.

“Last year, I had the mindset to go in and take a spot, but I don’t know if I believed it,” Forsling said. “I’m ready this year. I feel good.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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