Gustav Forsling has prepared himself for this situation.
To be the guy who can handle a heavier burden. To be the guy his team can rely on to play big minutes in crunch time situations. To be the guy who can be among the top defensemen in the NHL.
At least to start the season, it looks like he’ll have that opportunity for the Florida Panthers.
With both Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour out until at least December while recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries, Forsling will be the Panthers’ top returning defenseman from last season’s team that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final on the Opening Night roster.
The 27-year-old Swede, who is entering the final year of a three-year, $8 million contract, is ready to take the next step.
“I played a lot of big minutes last year,” Forsling said, “so I feel like I’m used to it.”
That he did.
He was part of Florida’s top defensive pairing all season last year and put up a career-high 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) while logging the second most minutes of average ice time per game on the team and 26th most in the NHL (23:26).
In three years with Florida, starting with the 2020-21 season, Forsling has tallied 95 points on 28 goals and 67 assists and racked up a plus-minus rating of plus-77, meaning the Panthers have outscored opponents by 77 goals when Forsling is on the ice in even strength and shorthanded situations.
So while Forsling might not be the big name one thinks of when talking about NHL defensemen, he certainly isn’t a newcomer, either.
“He’s established his game,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He doesn’t have to have a big year to prove he can do it. He’s been a hell of a defenseman in this league for the last few years. When you watch him in camp, he’s clearly an elite NHL defenseman on his skating and his ability and his durability alone. If Gus plays the exact same way that he played last year, he’s going to do very, very well because he’s put himself into that position.”
Likely joining Forsling on the Panthers’ top defensive pairing, at least to start the season, appears to be fellow Swede Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The two have been used together throughout most of training camp and have built noticeable chemistry.
“He’s a good skater,” Forsling said of Ekman-Larsson. “He moves the puck really well. Very skilled. Good wrist shot. Great on the power play. I feel I’ve got a lot to learn from a guy like that.”
While Forsling knows there are areas of his game that can still improve — he specifically mentioned fine-tuning his offensive game — the success he had last year during Florida’s playoff push only adds to his confidence that he can rise to the occasion.
He’ll have the opportunity this season.
“You take from that [run to the Stanley Cup Final] and take it into the summer. It makes you want to work even harder because now we got a taste of we can do,” Forsling said. “We were very close to going the whole way, but now I feel like everyone is excited to be back and get the new season started.”
Beyond Forsling, the only other healthy returning defenseman on Florida’s roster from last year is Josh Mahura. Florida signed four defensemen in the offseason — Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov, Niko Mikkola and Mike Reilly — to offset the early losses of Ekblad and Montour plus the departures of Radko Gudas and Marc Staal. Casey Fitzgerald, Lucas Carlsson and Matt Kiersted are also competing for a roster spot.
The Panthers on Tuesday sent four players from training camp to their respective junior clubs.
The quartet: Forwards Josh Davies, Gracyn Sawchyn and Sandis Vilmanis as well as defenseman Luke Coughlin.
Florida has 54 players remaining in training camp.