It was March 2015, and the Nashville Predators had hit their first rough patch of ice all season long. Prized rookie Filip Forsberg, along with All-Stars Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, had led the charge to that point. With remarkable consistency, the Predators had not lost back-to-back games until mid-January, during a brief stretch when Rinne went down with an injury. The setbacks were quickly righted as the team reeled off six consecutive victories and eight of nine to start February.
In all, the hockey world was abuzz about the team and their 20-year old rookie Forsberg – a native of Ostervala, Sweden who, from the day training camp began, had electrified an offense that had been stuck in neutral for the better part of the past two seasons.
Highly touted in his draft class of 2012, Forsberg was selected by the Washington Capitals with the 11th overall pick. His play in both the top tier Swedish League and international tournaments had served notice to the hockey community that he was mature beyond his years and was considered a “can’t miss” NHL prospect. Unfortunately for the Caps and their fan base, his promise would be fulfilled in Music City as a late season deal.
In an effort to bring some veteran presence and leadership to DC, the Preds sent longtime Preds forward Martin Erat and Michael Latta to Washington in exchange for the talented Mr. Forsberg.
It took just 18 months for Forsberg’s potential to come to center stage in Nashville. Shortly after his acquisition in early April 2013, Forsberg made his National Hockey League debut against a Detroit Red Wings team that featured a number of players he’d idolized while growing up. “We didn’t win my first game, but it was still an amazing experience,” says Forsberg. Detroit’s lineup featured no less than six Swedish-born players, all of whom caught a sizeable glimpse of the future as the 18-year old began his NHL career in Music City.
“Every youth hockey player dreams of a career in the National Hockey League, whether from the US, Canada… or Sweden,” says Forsberg. Playing five games as the 2012-13 season wound down, Forsberg got his first NHL point, an assist, in his fourth game, a win vs. Calgary at Bridgestone Arena.
The 2013-14 season was set to be Forsberg’s coming out party in Smashville, but a lower body injury towards the end of training camp delayed his debut until the team had dropped its first two games on the road. Inserted into the lineup for the team’s home opener in front of a sold-out crowd, Forsberg potted his first NHL goal early in the opening period. The team won that night, and Forsberg was awarded “number one star of the game.”
Soon after though, Trotz’ thinking began to shift, and a decision was made to bring the prized forward along a bit slower. Within a month’s time, Forsberg became part of the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee. Being sent to the AHL was a bit of a sting to a player who had come to North America as the showpiece of what looked like GM Poile’s biggest heist in team history.
Beset by some nagging injuries and then a trip abroad to play in the World Junior tournament, Forsberg managed to draw into just one more game for the Preds during what became a lost season for the team. Injuries and illness to goaltender Rinne sealed Nashville’s fate as a non-playoff team for the second consecutive year.
However, before season’s end, Poile reeled off another deal, shipping veteran David Legwand to Detroit for rookie Swedish forward Calle Jarnkrok. With Forsberg and Jarnkrok in the fold, a youthful offense had begun to take shape on paper. It was Poile’s next move, however, that helped solidify the new direction in the Predators camp.
Letting Coach Trotz go was a tearful, difficult decision from all sides, but there was no denying it was time to turn the page. The team had floundered the past two seasons with an anemic offense and no post-season play. Enter new head coach Peter Laviolette. It was in the pre-season when we asked Laviolette about the possibility of the young guns being able to usurp some of the older players in camp.
He spoke of a spirited competition and a search for the best players to open the season. During the Trotz regime, often the younger guys would find themselves shuffled off to the sidelines or minor leagues, but when Laviolette’s first Preds camp broke, it was Forsberg and Jarnkrok receiving regular playing time during integral minutes for this new incarnation of Nashville hockey.
The dynamics of Forsberg’s skill set electrifies the crowds at Bridgestone and sends opposing players and coaches back to their respective benches and locker rooms shaking their heads, wondering how to contain this young man’s talent over the course of most games.
His precision with the puck, his creativity, his willingness to go into areas of the ice occupied by the opposition and still come out with the puck and a quality scoring chance – these skills are becoming nightly highlight reel reminders of why the Nashville Predators offense may not be considered “boring” or in “neutral” again for a long, long time.
Former NHL player, coach and long-time member of Nashville’s broadcast team Terry Crisp points out that Forsberg is “the type of hockey player that will make this league even more successful in the future. There’s so much young talent in the NHL, but a kid like Forsberg, with the kind of creativity and vision he has, will certainly be one of the guys the league will want to showcase.”
Forsberg himself has had plenty of reasons to be happy with his own play. Shattering Preds rookie records for goals, assists and total points, Forsberg ranked among the league leaders in these areas at season’s end and was named to the NHL All-Rookie team. To meet and speak with Forsberg, you immediately sense both his maturity and modesty, carefully avoiding the kind of cockiness and ego that has spoiled any number of professional athletes who choose to believe their own hype, putting themselves well in front of their team and teammates.
Meeting Forsberg after a spirited team practice at Bridgestone Arena, we found him grounded in reality and enjoying the ride. He loves his team, his teammates and his surroundings. He comes from a town significantly smaller than Nashville and was used to “walking everywhere.”
He has made the transition to North America, however, with ease, along with fellow Swede Jarnkrok, 22, and Swiss-born defenseman Roman Josi, 24. Forsberg also entertained his visiting parents twice during this past season. “They are able to entertain themselves pretty easily,” he says, adding that they always plan their trips around a concentration of games that will keep them around the rink to watch him play.
Since Forsberg’s dad Patrik played pro hockey in Sweden, he’s comfortable around the team. In fact, the senior Forsberg was in the pressroom prior to a game last season when he encountered the effusive Crisp, whose son Tony had played a season of his professional hockey career in Ostervala back in the early ‘90s.
The two were amazed at their mutual intersection. Even though tiny Ostervala has fewer than sixteen hundred residents, essentially everyone has supported or played hockey in their lifetimes. Could you really be surprised? So, an elder Forsberg and a younger Crisp in Sweden gives way to the elder Crisp and the younger Forsberg in Nashville and the circle is complete.
Forsberg should spend many years delighting Predators fans with his unique skilled brand of hockey, bringing people out of their seats with wild-eyed amazement and thoughts of “Did you see what he just did?” because Forsberg is a very special player, and we are truly blessed to have him in Gold.
A Look Ahead…
Optimism abounds at Bridgestone Arena as the Nashville Predators begin the 2015-16 NHL season. Fans expect Forsberg to build on his tremendous rookie season, and All Star defenseman and Preds captain Shea Weber returns from the knee injury that knocked him out of the post-season series vs. the eventual Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks.
There’s plenty more to be excited about. Of course, goalie Pekka Rinne should continue to be the rock that anchors the ship. His numbers were tremendous for the better part of last season, and he is generally regarded as a shoo-in nominee for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goaltender each season. Carter Hutton returns as a capable understudy.
The forward group has a couple of new faces, but for the most part you will see the guys that carried the offense last season. Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Mike Fisher, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Forsberg will make up the Top 6. Returnees Calle Jarnkrok, Paul Gaustad, Eric Nystrom and Gabriel Bourque will all be pushed for ice time by newly-signed free agents Steve Moses (led Russia’s KHL in goals last year) and Cody Hodgson, along with highly touted youngsters Kevin Fiala, Viktor Arvidsson, Colton Sissons and Austin Watson. Both Smith and Wilson avoided arbitration and signed four-year deals to keep them in Nashville as their careers continue to see positive growth.
Defensively, the stingy Predators are led by Weber and the vastly underrated Roman Josi, who is poised to serve the league notice that he is as elite as his defensive partner on a game in-game out basis. Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and now third-year stud Seth Jones will continue to improve – and will do so with the help of newly acquired veteran Barret Jackman. Victor Bartley returns and will likely be the spare defenseman, capable to fill in when injuries arise.
Pundits across North America pick the Preds anywhere from first to fifth in the ultra-competitive Central Division, and we want to see how all the pieces fit before we go out on a limb, but we are certain that the Preds will entertain and exhilarate the fans who support them this season.