Teen prodigy Forsberg primed to take big leap with Preds

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was quite the spring of 2013 for Filip Forsberg.

Make your debut in the National Hockey League — check.

Graduate from high school back home in Sweden a few months later — check.

Get a driver’s license — that one is still-to-be-checked.

Yes, it has been quite the whirlwind for the former first-round draft pick (Washington Capitals), who was traded to the Nashville Predators last season for veteran forward Martin Erat. Immediately upon his arrival from Sweden to play five NHL games late in the season for the Preds, Forsberg was touted as a scoring savior for a team that has struggled to score goals over the years.

“Of course, you know that the NHL is a tough game,” Forsberg said Saturday morning at Centennial Sportsplex, following a scrimmage to close the week-long development camp that featured around 30 Predators prospects.

“But I didn’t realize how tough that it really is to be out there with all those great players in the league,” he added. “That was kind of a wake-up call for me.”

Upon returning to Sweden following his unexpected call from the Predators to play last season, Forsberg had six weeks to make up work to graduate from high school early last month. He seems as proud of that degree as making his debut in the NHL before graduation.

“It was great,” Forsberg said of walking the graduation line. “I had been in school since I was a little kid. I wanted to get it done and get out of there.”Yeah, it was important. I was pretty proud, both for myself and my family.”

Now, Forsberg wants to make his new family proud. And that would be continuing to progress this summer and through training camp enough to make Nashville’s opening-day roster come October. And if he does as expected, Forsberg won’t be asked to do it all right away.

The free-agency influx of forwards, like Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen, to help man the first two lines — along with key forward returnees Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson, Patric Hornqvist, Gabriel Bourque, David Legwand and Paul Gaustad — could allow Forsberg to slide to the third line, where his initial offensive production won’t be so much of a necessity.

That was unlike last season when the Predators threw Forsberg to the wolves — thanks to personnel attrition and myriad injuries — and had him running on the first line in his first NHL game against Detroit and star forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

“The whole thing was a surprise and totally unexpected to come over last season and to be thrust right into the NHL lineup,” Predators general manager David Poile said of Forsberg, who had just one assist in those five NHL games. “It was a surprise and maybe a little bit overwhelming. Now, we see him back here this time a little bit more relaxed and a little bit calmer about the whole situation.”

Indeed, Forsberg seemed more at ease and easily stood out — along with 18-year-old defenseman Seth Jones, the No. 4 overall pick in the recent NHL draft — among Predators peers during development camp. Both are expected to make the opening-day roster and learn how to play in the NHL.

“With a grain of salt, obviously, you take what you see in July,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said of Forsberg, who turns 19 next month. “But he is a young man who is very mature for his age. So, I like his ability. He likes to challenge people. He has good poise. He can make plays through traffic.”

In fact, one projection already has Forsberg starting on the third forward line to be centered by Legwand and manned on the other side by promising third-year forward Craig Smith.

“It has been a little bit more skills training,” Forsberg said of Predators development camp this year compared to the Capitals’ last summer. “I think that’s great. There are a lot of details that you can work a lot on that you don’t do that much on your own.”

There is certainly hockey pedigree for Forsberg, who the Capitals made the No. 11 overall pick two years ago. This past season, the 6-foot-1, 188-pounder scored 33 points in 38 games for Lekswand of Sweden’s second league. He led all junior skaters in the league in scoring and was named the league’s top junior player.

“Filip has been successful and a winner everywhere he has played,” Poile said. “And he’s been a leader everywhere that he has played. To me, it all adds up to a guy who can be very important to the Predators. And he looks like he can make a good contribution to us this coming season.”

Still, there is the process of adjustment to living and traveling in North America and learning how to navigate life as a professional at the highest level of his sport for the first time. Trotz said many aspects of development camp center on life skills, especially for those from other countries who might have some unexpected barriers to hurdle.

“We try to give them a head’s up on those type of things,” Trotz said. “As a young man, you are just going, ‘Oh, I am going to go play hockey and go to North America and we’ll just figure it out as we go along.’ Well, sometimes it’s not that easy.”

That’s a notion not lost on Forsberg, who hopes to parlay his understanding of what it takes to play in the NHL gathered from five games last season into a regular role with the Predators and not an opening-day spot in Milwaukee, Nashville’s minor-league affiliate.

“I have a lot of work to do this summer and the rest of my career,” Forsberg said, “because I want to be in the top of the league in the future years. I am really going to have to work hard for it to work out.”

Probably sooner rather than later, Forsberg will be counted on by the Predators, who missed the playoffs last season for only the second time in nine seasons. But Poile and Trotz like what they have seen thus far from their young gun.

“Just talking to him, he realizes that this year is going to be his chance to play for us on a regular basis in the National Hockey League,” Poile said. “It is a much calmer situation than it was when he first came over. … First off, he looks like a hockey player. He’s got good size and is a great skater. He looks like an athlete. He’s smart. You certainly can tell that. He’s smart as a person, but he also has great hockey sense.”