“I noticed a difference just in his mannerisms and a little bit in the aura around him when he came to the rink,” said Kings Assistant General Manager Rob Blake, speaking about the changes he saw in Forbort when he arrived at Rookie Camp last month. “He came in a little bit older, from college, so it takes a little bit of getting used to. The AHL season is longer, the travel, the daily grind that you’re not as used to in college – all of that came into focus last season and you saw a big transition in him. He kind of took charge of things. He became more of the leader throughout the Rookie Camp and into the main camp; he was one of the guys we’d go to and ask if everyone was getting around and doing everything right. I think that confidence comes with him [now].”
Unlike several first round players around the NHL in recent years though, there was never a plan to rush Forbort to the big show. It was well known he would begin attending the University of North Dakota just a few months after being drafted – something GM Dean Lombardi applauded at the time, noting it was one of the best college programs in the nation.
With Forbort as one of the prime anchors on their blueline, UND made it to the Frozen Four his freshman year and was one win away from returning each of the following two years, losing to Minnesota and Yale in the Regional Finals. Three years was enough though. With his game starting to plateau, it was now time for the next challenge. In April 2013, he signed his three-year entry level contract with the Kings. That also meant he was now a pro hockey player and was immediately sent to Manchester, where he suited up for six games to end the regular season and four more in the post-season. That brief experience proved to be invaluable.
"Absolutely,” Forbort exclaimed. “Just getting used to the area and how they do things here and just playing in real American League games helped me a ton, as far as feeling comfortable coming in the next year and being able to get off to a good start."
Last year, in his first full season as a pro, Forbort grew into a steady force on defense and was part of the Monarchs top-pairing by the second-half of the season. Never much of an offensive force, he recorded one goal and 16 assists. More importantly, he led all defensemen in Manchester with 74 games played – a huge increase from the 35-40 he had been used to at North Dakota.
“It was definitely an adjustment,” remarked Forbort. “I really enjoyed playing [that many] games though. College is great but you don't get to play that many games, so it was fun to get to play so much. Even though the season was a lot longer, it was good experience. It was also easier to get into a rhythm because you're playing more.”
Understanding the value placed on defense throughout the entire Kings organization, Forbort made sure that was a priority last season, leading him to a plus-19 rating with the Monarchs.
"I'm proud of that,” he stated. “I definitely take care of my own end before getting things going on the offensive end. The offense is something I want to continue to develop and continue to add to my game. But, plus-minus is [a statistic] I look at to assess my game and how I'm playing."
Along with the coaching staff and development team that have been working closely with Forbort – “they’re really good at teaching us little things to help us get to the next level” – he has also received some unlikely help from a future Hall of Fame defenseman.
“[Blake] and I have had some conversations and he's been great about giving me little pointers,” Forbort began. “Obviously, he's one of the best defensemen to ever play the game. I remember watching all the big hits and the big slap shots. He's the guy that I try to model my game after. He’s also been out on the ice with us, so it’s been awesome to have the chance to work with him. He's a good role model to have.”
To hear Blake tell it, putting the skates on again was something that just developed organically, it wasn’t part of a master plan or something Lombardi insisted he do.
“It was more a spontaneous type of thing. It was never really talked about, per se, in the job description or anything like that,” shared Blake. “It kind of started in the summer when I took the job and we had Development Camp. The first couple of days, I sat and I watched, and [I thought], I don’t really know the players that well. I kind of related it back to when I played, and the best way to do it was to be out there with them. I started going on the ice then, and later when I went to Manchester, I would go out for most of the practices with the coaching staff. You get a little different sense just being on the ice, seeing different things. You can also discuss things when you want, right with the player, as the practice is going on.”
Moving forward, the emphasis will be on rounding out Forbort’s game and getting him NHL ready. In a perfect world, he’s likely a year or two away from being a solid NHL player, but hockey is a fluid business and you have to be ready when the opportunity arises.
“Last year was a learning curve,” Blake expressed. “And we told him that this year before we sent him back [to Manchester], we said, ‘Last year, you had to learn and figure out the pro level. We’ll give you [that as a] work-in period. Now, you have to become the leader down there. You have to become the best player down there. Once you do that, that’s when your opportunity will come in the NHL.’ If you look at the history of the way the Kings did it with Tanner [Pearson] and Tyler [Toffoli] the last couple of years, they went down and had a year of pro, then the next year they became one of the best players, one of the more dominant players on that team. Then, they were making their debut in the NHL. We kind of laid out that progression to Derek going forward.”
Showing he’s on board with the plan, Forbort offered his goals for the year in a rather succinct manner.
"I want to contribute more offensively,” he said. “I also want to be consistent every night and [know] what to do in [all] situations. That's my goal, add some offensive when I can [and] stay reliable, stay defensive-minded when I'm out there."
In a separate conversation, Blake expressed the organization is on the same page and thinking in the same direction.
“You always need to improve all aspects of your game, so I think it’s good that he’s kind of focusing on that,” said the Kings Assistant GM. “His skating, his size, and his reach definitely [contribute] to being solid defensively. He takes care of his own end. I think you envision him being a guy who immediately gets back, breaks up plays, and gets the puck and moves it quick. I think his offense is going to come by jumping in the rush and also being a little more assertive or being more aggressive from the blueline in.”
Because of his strong skating, Forbort can cover a lot of distance, so there are times he can pinch. Now, we’ll see if he can use that to spot offensive opportunities and possibly take more shots. In the early part of the season, the reviews are positive, as Blake commented he’s noticed more slapshots from the second year pro, something he didn’t observe much of last year.
Getting Forbort ready for the NHL was always envisioned as a process. And if seems like it’s been a bit of a long journey, you’re not the only one owning up to those thoughts.
"[The Draft] seems pretty long ago, I was still in high school,” he said with a hint of a laugh. “It's still crazy to think that it was that long ago. I just have to keep on the course, keep working and keep building my game. I guess, in the beginning, I didn't know all that went into it. Playing high school hockey and then one year in Ann Arbor [with the U.S. National Development Program], then getting drafted - I didn't know exactly what it took, I definitely know now. It's a lot of hard work.”
Playing in a pre-season game at Staples Center last month also helped him see the big picture with new clarity. He sat in the press box and watched the Kings win the Stanley Cup last season, but suiting up for a game raised the bar to a whole different level.
"It was awesome!” he said, in one of the few times the even-keeled Minnesota native expressed sheer enthusiasm in his voice. “There is a buzz in that arena that makes you excited to play. Sure, it was a pre-season game, but it was a lot of fun to compete out there in front of those fans. It was awesome to put that Kings jersey on for the first time. It makes you feel more a part of the organization. Getting the chance to go out and compete with those guys and show them what you got. It makes you want it more, makes you want to get to that next level and be there permanently."
As his development continues, Forbort says he doesn’t feel any burden of being a first round selection by the Kings. It doesn’t weigh on him.
"I think I knew from the beginning it was going to be a process,” he said, in a rather reflective tone. “They told me there was going to be a lot of hard work going into it. For me, it's just been about focusing on the path. I have to continue working, keep getting better and keep building my game. In the end, it's definitely going to be worth it. Eventually, I'll get to the NHL. That is something I want and definitely has been a dream of mine for a long time. Hopefully, I get there."
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).