Every NHL team has prospects that were traded or given up on before their potential was realized. The Vancouver Canucks are no exception. In the first of an ongoing series here at The Hockey Writers, I will be highlighting a player that was drafted or signed by the team and then let go before they could hit their stride on the West Coast. Starting with Gustav Forsling, who was selected 126th overall in 2014 by the Canucks and is now starring with the Florida Panthers in a top-four role.
2014 Draft Was Full of Missed Opportunities for the Canucks
Just think if the Canucks would have drafted Nikolaj Ehlers and David Pastrnak and kept Forsling instead of trading him. I would imagine they would look very different today and may even have a Stanley Cup under their belts. While that universe might exist somewhere, that’s not the one Canucks Nation lives in today. Instead, Ehlers is lighting it up with the Winnipeg Jets and Pastrnak has become one of the franchise greats in Boston, already eclipsing 500 points in the NHL along with six seasons of 20 goals or more.
And Forsling, well, we’ll get to him a little later on. After being selected in the fifth round by the Canucks, he showed promise very early on and appeared to be a steal for then-general manager Jim Benning and company, and it all started at the 2015 World Junior Championship (WJC) when he starred for Team Sweden.
Forsling Stars for Sweden at the 2015 World Juniors
The 2015 WJC was exciting for Canucks fans as they got to watch three prospects star for their respective countries. Future starting goaltender Thatcher Demko for Team USA, Jake Virtanen for Team Canada, and Forsling for Team Sweden. While Virtanen was the only one who walked away with a medal, Forsling was by far the most impressive finishing with three goals and eight points in seven games.
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Named to the All-Star Team and ending the tournament with the most goals, assists, and points by a defenseman, Forsling was the talk of the town when it came to defensive prospects. Unfortunately, that excitement was shortlived, as Benning decided to trade him to the Chicago Blackhawks for 22-year-old Adam Clendening just weeks after the WJC had ended.
Clendening Flops in Vancouver, Forsling Starts to Thrive Elsewhere
Yes, Clendening was more developed as an NHL defenceman at the time, but as it turns out, not the better player overall. In fact, he didn’t even stick with the Canucks past the 2014-15 season as he was part of the package that helped bring Brandon Sutter to Vancouver in July of 2015. He finished his tenure on the West Coast with only two assists in 17 games and has since bounced around six organizations scoring four goals and 24 points in 90 NHL games. He is basically an AHL journeyman now playing for the Rockford IceHogs, the farm team of the franchise that drafted him back in 2011.
Forsling, on the other hand, started to develop with the Blackhawks and made his NHL debut in the 2016-17 season. Splitting his time between the IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL) and the parent club, he got into 38 games and scored two goals and five points. The next season, he played 41 games in Chicago and only 18 in Rockford and posted a career-high three goals and 13 points.
Then, after 43 games in the Windy City in 2018-19, Forsling was traded in the offseason to the Carolina Hurricanes for Calvin de Haan and Anthony Serela. Playing the entire 2019-20 season with the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes AHL affiliate, he finished with eight goals and 26 points in 57 games.
Forsling Becomes a Top-Four Defenceman in Florida
Before Forsling could suit up for a game with the Hurricanes, he was claimed off waivers by the Panthers just before the truncated 2020-21 season began in January of 2021. He ended up not only making the team out of training camp but also playing 43 games and hitting a new career high of five goals and 17 points. And that was just the beginning.
Last season was Forsling’s biggest yet as he became a two-way force on the blue line hitting career-bests in goals (10), assists (27), points (41), shots (145), plus/minus (plus-41), average ice time (21:13), hits (45), blocks (86), and takeaways (51). Talk about a career season. The 2021-22 season was basically his coming-out party, and yet another feel-good story for a defenceman that had long odds of making it to the NHL, let alone become a top-four fixture on a Stanley Cup contender.
Now Forsling is one of the best defencemen the Panthers have next to Aaron Ekblad. With MacKenzie Weegar in Calgary now he has been given more responsibility on Florida’s blue line in 2022-23 – and he’s run with it. Averaging 24:03 of ice time along with 2:52 on the penalty kill and 1:59 on the power play, he already has two goals and 10 points and is in the double-digits in plus/minus at plus-13. He has also stepped up big time with the recent injury to Ekblad, taking over as the de facto number-one defenceman. Something GM Bill Zito is ecstatic about.
“It seems like every year, his role keeps growing and growing. He keeps taking on more and excelling…Now, he’s going to get even more ice time and more responsibility…His personality, he’s kind of an understated guy but when it’s time to play, he shows up, and he just keeps getting better and better…”– Bill Zito (from ‘How Gustav Forsling has gone from role player to Panthers’ top defenseman with Ekblad out’, Miami Herald, 10/24/22)
Needless to say, Forsling has turned into one of the biggest steals of the 2014 Draft. In fact, if I was re-drafting that class today, I would have him in the first round, not the fifth.
Canucks’ Mistake Is Now the Panthers’ Success Story
While the Canucks did not trade Forsling to the Panthers, they definitely made a mistake moving him to the Blackhawks all those years ago. Evidently, Benning and his scouts didn’t recognize Forsling’s immense potential and thought Clendening was more developed and would contribute to the team right away. Hindsight is always 20/20, but Forsling’s performance at the 2015 WJC would have convinced me that he had the tools to be a big part of the Canucks’ future blue line – something he is right now for the Panthers.
Related: Canucks Rookie Rewind: Pavel Bure
All in all, seeing Forsling in his prime at 26 years old, the Canucks ultimately let a gem get away from them. With all the holes they have, especially when it comes to solid two-way defencemen, he would be a welcome sight in the top four and on the penalty kill right now. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and he’s dominating in the Sunshine State as one of the NHL’s most underrated blueliners.
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.