FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Gustav Forsling’s happy place -- at least one of them -- is on his boat, fishing.

Sometimes when the Florida Panthers defenseman is home in Sweden during the offseason, he’ll head out with his brother or a friend at 6 a.m. and they’ll spend more than 12 hours on the water. Out there, thoughts that might have cluttered Forsling’s mind on land recede and are replaced by a singular objective.

“You just focus on fishing,” he said this week. “I kind of forget everything about anything else. I’m just in that moment trying to catch the biggest fish I possibly can.”

When the Panthers open the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the best-of-7 series at home Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC), Forsling will be focused fully on trying to reel in the NHL’s biggest fish, Connor McDavid, and landing hockey’s biggest prize, the Stanley Cup.

Used to drawing the toughest defensive assignments, Forsling welcomes the opportunity to do his part in Florida’s bid to complete the business it left unfinished when it lost to Vegas Golden Knights in the Cup Final last season in five games.

“It’s kind of been my job the last rounds,” he said. “Playing against the other team’s top line is always a challenge, but this probably is going to be the biggest.”

Forsling, along with defense partner Aaron Ekblad, has helped the Panthers contain some of the NHL’s top offensive players while advancing through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins and Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers each failed to score an even-strength goal against them.

But the Oilers, with McDavid -- voted the Hart Trophy winner three times as NHL most valuable player (and a finalist again this season) -- and running mate Leon Draisaitl, present an even tougher test. McDavid leads the NHL with 31 points (five goals, 26 assists) in 18 playoff games after he was third in the League during the regular season with 132 points (32 goals, 100 assists) in 76 games, the seventh time in his nine NHL seasons he reached 100.

Forsling had a much lower profile until emerging as one of the NHL’s one most complete defensemen with his pivotal role in the Panthers reaching the Cup Final the past two seasons. Or as Florida coach Paul Maurice phrased it last week, “Gustav Forsling, for me, in his style is the best defenseman in the world.”

That’s not something anyone with the Panthers would’ve projected when they claimed Forsling off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 9, 2021. But by the time Florida signed Forsling to an eight-year contract on March 7, preventing the 27-year-old from becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1, the decision was a no-brainer.

“He’s such a big part of the team and beyond his on-ice (performance), like a lot of the guys on our team, his character, his commitment to the group, he wants to be here,” general manager Bill Zito said. “It’s just however many boxes there are when you make these type of commitments, he’s checking every one.”

That Forsling has reached this level might be a surprise to everyone other than him, though.

“You’ve got to believe in yourself and your abilities,” he said, “because otherwise no one else is going to believe in you.”

* * *

Though Forsling always believed, his faith was tested.

After being selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the fifth round (No. 126) of the 2014 NHL Draft, Forsling never played a game for them before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 29, 2015. He joined a veteran Blackhawks team in 2016-17 and split his rookie season between Chicago and Rockford of the American Hockey League, getting five points (two goals, three assists) in 38 NHL games.

Brian Campbell, now a hockey operations adviser with the Blackhawks, was paired with him for some of that season, including Forsling’s NHL debut against the St. Louis Blues, and immediately saw promise in his play.

“He was a little bit slow at moving pucks, but he did a lot of things that it was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he’s got confidence to do that,’” Campbell said. “But that’s just time, right? He came over and he was 20 or 21. So I didn’t move pucks quick until I was 25, let’s say. But definitely his shot was extremely hard, which he’s showing. His stick has always been really good.”

Forsling bounced between Rockford and Chicago for three seasons before being traded again, to Carolina on June 25, 2019. He viewed the trade as an opportunity to finally stay in the NHL full time but learned differently at the end of training camp.

“I was the seventh D-man, so I thought I made the team,” he said. “Then, just got the call a couple minutes before noon that I was going on waivers. And no one picked me up.”

Forsling, 23 at the time, went back to the AHL, with Charlotte.

“I was kind of devastated, to be honest,” he said. “It was very hard mentally. It was a tough first month, I would say, and then I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to figure this out and play good again and get another chance.’”

Forsling spent the entire 2019-20 season with Charlotte and had 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) and a plus-20 rating in 57 games. If he struggled to deal with his disappointment about playing in the AHL again, Charlotte coach Ryan Warsofsky never saw a sign of it.

“He just put his head down and he worked and never complained, never let his attitude or his body language affect the rest of the group,” said Warsofsky, an assistant with the San Jose Sharks the past two seasons. “He could’ve gone sideways, and he just put his head down and worked. He did everything we asked.”

Though Forsling started slowly, he found more consistency as the season progressed and had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) and a plus-26 rating in his final 31 games.

“I would say towards the end before COVID shut us down he was our best player, and it wasn’t even close,” Warsofsky said. “I saw what Paul Maurice said about who he is as a defenseman a couple weeks ago and how he plays. He really doesn’t make many mistakes and, when he does, he recovers so quickly. Those are the things that we saw in Charlotte in that period. And then COVID hit.

“Terrible timing. I think if COVID doesn’t hit, he probably gets called up, plays in the playoffs for Carolina and he’s still in Carolina.”

Instead, the COVID outbreak caused the NHL and AHL to pause play on March 12, 2020. The AHL eventually canceled the rest of its season. When the NHL returned to play with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in August, Forsling was not among the 10 defensemen on the Hurricanes’ postseason roster.

That left Forsling with a lot of free time. Even as a young player, he was committed to improving his strength and conditioning.

So, with an unknown future, he doubled down on that.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to play again,’” Forsling said. “So, I put in a lot of work in the gym that summer. Summer? It was almost probably nine months, from March to January, basically. I put in a lot of hard work, and I said, ‘I’m going to give this one more shot and just got to stay ready,’ for when the chance came.”

* * *

Forsling’s chance finally came the following season. After the shortened training camp in January 2021, Carolina placed him on waivers again.

This time, Florida claimed him.

Zito, who was hired by as Panthers GM on Sept. 2, 2020, called the decision “a real collective effort.” Zito initially had interest in Forsling when he was assistant GM with the Columbus Blue Jackets and scout Blake Geoffrion, who followed the Blackhawks, said, “This is a guy I really like.’”

Also chiming in on the decision were senior adviser to the GM Rick Dudley and senior vice president of hockey operation Paul Krepelka, who each worked for the Hurricanes previously, and Joel Quenneville and Ulf Samuelsson, who were Florida’s coach and an assistant, respectively, at the time and had coached Forsling in Chicago.

“No question those guys thought he could play,” Zito said. “I remember Paul Krepelka put his hand on the desk and he goes, ‘He’s going to play.’ … But I don’t think anybody thought he was going to do this.”

Forsling’s familiarity with Quenneville was one of the reasons he was excited as he drove with his girlfriend (now wife) Daniela to Florida to join his new team.

“I knew how he wanted me to play,” Forsling said. “I gained a lot of confidence from that. … I told my wife, now my wife, ‘This is it. This is my chance and I’m going to take it with both hands.’”

In his first season with Florida, Forsling had 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) and a plus-17 rating in 43 games in 2020-21, playing mostly on the third defense pair. By the end of his breakout second season, when he had 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) and a plus-41 rating in 71 games, he was on the top pair.

Forsling had an NHL career-high 41 points (NHL career-high 13 goals, 28 assists) in 82 regular-season games last season and eight points (two goals, six assists) in 21 playoff games to help Florida reach the Cup Final for the second time in its history and first time since 1996. He followed it up this season by leading Florida defensemen with 39 points (10 goals, NHL career-high 29 assists) despite limited time on the power play (34 seconds per game) and had a League-best plus-56 rating in 79 games.

Ratings can be misleading, but Forsling’s plus-56 might be more impressive because of the assignments he draws each game.

“Gustav plays against the other team’s best every single night and if his minutes are down against the other team’s best it’s because the other team’s coach is working them away from him,” Maurice said. “And he is that good.”

That’s continued into the playoffs, where Forsling is first in the NHL with a plus-119 shot attempts differential at 5-on-5 and second with a plus-11 rating, behind Edmonton defenseman Evan Bouchard (plus-14). He sometimes leaves teammates chuckling by how routinely he appears to diffuse potential scoring threats.

“Extremely smart, extremely good with his stick, defensively closes gaps better than most in this league and uses his feet to get out of any tricky situation,” Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said. “… It’s tough for most and he does it pretty easy.”

Though Forsling’s first instinct is toward defending, he’s also made important contributions offensively in the playoffs. He is fourth in the League among defensemen with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 17 games, again with little power-play time (17 seconds per game). That includes scoring timely goals such as his game-winner in the series-clinching 2-1 victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against Boston and tying goals in Games 3 and 5 of the conference final against New York.

“This guy has been working so hard for every inch, so that makes it even more special for him,” Panthers defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “But he’s an unbelievable player, very underrated. I think the League is starting to realize how good he is. He’s just driving the bus for us.”

Bill Zito on building the Panthers roster, more

* * *

Zito cites Quenneville and Samuelsson giving a Forsling a chance to play regularly in his first season, which not all coaches will do with a player claimed off waivers, as an important first step in his success. But Zito said most of the credit should go to Forsling.

“The thing about it is he’s a tireless worker and he doesn’t skip details,” Zito said. “A lot of the guys on our team are like that. They do have extraordinary skill. His skating is elite, but complete attention to detail, workouts, stretching, sleep, food.

“He’s the guy we talk about generally, ‘If you do all these things, you can earn it and give yourself a chance,’ and all that. And all that’s him.”

Forsling attributes the growth in his game with Florida to opportunity and maturity.

“The lower level of my game, I feel like I stepped up,” he said. “I was a little more stable. I matured a little bit. I really wanted it. It’s a lot of confidence, too.”

Less than five years after the low point of passing through waivers unclaimed in 2019, Forsling is riding a high. His first trip to the Cup Final last season was followed by his wedding with Daniela last July, the arrival of son Bo in January, the long-term contract March 7, buying a new house, and now another shot at the Stanley Cup.

“You get married, you have a kid, you secure your future, you buy yourself a place to live, and it turns out he’s playing by far the best hockey of his life, the best of his career,” Maurice said. “He’s peaked. Hopefully he can stay there for about eight years.

“But that goes to how he got there. He had to work every day without a guarantee that it was going to turn out like this.”

Forsling leaned on Daniela through the difficult times. “I wouldn’t be here without her,” he said. He also relied on his belief in himself and simply being patient when things didn’t go his way.

Perhaps that goes back to his approach to fishing, which he acknowledged “takes a lot of patience,” on those long days on his boat.

“I feel like hockey is a little similar,” Forsling said. “You have to have all your attention, you have to be in the moment, and you’ve got to try different things. If there’s something that doesn’t work, you have to change it up.”

NHL.com staff writer Amalie Benjamin contributed to this report

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