NASHVILLE — Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said after Filip Forsberg’s NHL debut on Sunday that if the 18-year-old had looked like he were struggling, then Trotz would have gone to Plan B.
He didn’t — part of what has been a good first impression in the rookie’s first two games.
In Forsberg’s second game in two nights, the coach did take his foot off the accelerator, so to speak. Forsberg played 18:37 in his debut against the Detroit Red Wings, but that dropped by almost 30 percent on Monday against Vancouver to 13:10. In each game, he went minus-2 and he has yet to pick up a point, but that only tells part of the story.
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On both nights, Forsberg, the highly-touted prospect for whom the Predators traded long-time wing Martin Erat on the NHL’s trade deadline, underwent a baptism by fire, competing on the ice against some of the best players in the world.
On Monday, his line, comprising fellow rookie Taylor Beck and veteran David Legwand, matched up against Detroit’s top line of Pavel Datsyuk (a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward), fellow Swede Henrik Zetterberg, a four-time 30-goal scorer, and Justin Abdelkader. Forsberg was on the ice both times when that line scored against the Predators, but the second time came in the game’s final minutes when Nashville pulled its goalie for an extra attacker and yielded an empty-net goal. The fact that Trotz put Forsberg in that situation shows at a minimum that the coach wanted to see what he could in such a test.
The next night, Forsberg’s line was on the ice for two goals against Vancouver’s newly-minted line of veteran Derek Roy, Ryan Kesler and Jannik Hansen, a line with two former 30-goal scorers. Back in the second round of the playoffs in 2011, Kesler helped Vancouver almost single-handedly to eliminate the Predators.
Trotz talked about the situation on Monday before the Vancouver game.
“Getting Forsberg as an 18year-old, I mean, his first NHL game he’s with Taylor Beck who’s in game (14) and he’s in his first game and David Legwand has all the games and they’re playing against Zetterberg Datsyuk and (Johan) Franzen,” Trotz said. “That’s a tall task of a Forsberg, of Taylor Beck, but we’re finding out at what level they can play.”
For now, that level seems reasonably high. Before Monday’s game, Forsberg was saying his energy level felt fine. Despite the flight from Sweden to the United States on Saturday, he had yet to suffer ill effects of jetlag.
“I feel pretty good, actually,” he said. “I was tired after the game but I had a good sleep and now I’m all charged up again for a new game.”
Again, he went minus-2 (Legwand and Beck, who received more ice time were minus-3), but he also showed that lively shot again and was active, driving towards the net. He didn’t seem easily intimidated and was unafraid of going to the areas of the ice where players receive the most punishment.
In his limited ice time on Monday, Forsberg picked up four shots on top of two on Monday. In recent weeks, general manager David Poile had talked about the reluctance of the team’s forwards to shoot the puck as a facet of the game that the Predators needed to improve upon. In comparison, Sergei Kostitsyn, who led the Predators in goals and points in 2010-11, has only 39 shots in 42 games. Forsberg definitely seems like he will help in that department.
With four games left in the Predators’ season – now that they have been eliminated from the playoffs – Forsberg will have time to pick up his first goal and his first point, perhaps, eventually, against lesser competition. League-leading Chicago is up next on Friday before Calgary visits for the final home game next Tuesday. Then Nashville finishes up on the road against Detroit and Columbus, two teams that could be in a fight for the playoffs down to the end.
Of course, Forsberg is likely to sit out at least one of those games. If he plays in the final six games of the season, then he will have burned a full year off his entry-level contract, according to terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement negotiated for this shortened season. Trotz has repeatedly said that he will not make that decision. It seems management will probably do it for him.
But from the small sample size, here’s going out on a limb and saying that Forsberg will be on the Predators’ roster next season out of training camp, following in the footsteps of Legwand and Scott Hartnell. When the Predators have their full compliment of healthy forwards, Forsberg will not be a first-liner and won’t have to face the league’s elite players at such a young age.
It’s much different being a young forward than it is to be a young a defenseman, players who have much more responsibility. Forwards also play a lot less. Forsberg might eventually migrate to center but he can start, as he has the last few games, as a wing, where he would not have to take faceoffs or have nearly as many defensive chores. Mostly, he could worry about scoring, which the Predators need in abundance.
In fact, Forsberg would be much more valuable providing scoring depth on the third line and exploiting potential mismatches there – something the Predators have not done well this season but at which they excelled in 2011-12, when they finished with the fifth most points in the league.
In time, he could work his way up the ladder. If he fulfills his potential, he could help bring about a full transformation in the team’s forwards to ones that are big and skilled. If Forsberg (6-foot-1, 188 pounds as a lanky 18-year-old), Colin Wilson (6-1, 210) and Taylor Beck (6-2, 208) could form a first line in years to come, they could become a latter-day version of Boston’s so-called “700-pound line” of 2003-04. The trio of Glen Murray, Joe Thornton and Mike Knuble – christened, ironically, by then-Montreal and current Boston coach Claude Julien for what he guessed was those players’ combined weight – totaled 76 goals that season.
All of that remains a ways off.
For now, Forsberg just needs to concentrate on continuing to make a positive impression.