Gustav Forsling, once a waiver-wire pickup, signs 8-year extension with Panthers

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The Florida Panthers and defenseman Gustav Forsling have agreed to an eight-year extension, Panthers GM Bill Zito announced on Thursday. The contract carries a $5.75 million average annual value and will roll over to the 2031-32 season.

“Over his four seasons in South Florida, Gustav has developed into one of the most complete defensemen in the National Hockey League,” Zito said in a release. “His career is an example of how far hard work and total commitment to improvement can take a person. We’re proud that Gustav will remain a Florida Panther.”

The Panthers claimed Forsling off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes in January 2021. At the end of the 2020-21 season, he signed a three-year, $8 million extension with Florida.

Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, Forsling was traded twice, to Chicago and then Carolina, before finding steady work as an NHL defenseman in Florida. He helped the Panthers on their run to the Stanley Cup Final and was the team’s most relied-upon penalty killer. He also reached career highs in goals (13) and points (41) over the 2022-23 season. The 27-year-old defender leads all Florida defensemen with 31 points in 62 games this season.

How significant is this extension for Forsling?

The 27-year-old Swede is crafting one of the more remarkable stories in recent years. A fifth-round pick by Vancouver in 2014, Forsling made his debut with Chicago in the 2016-17 and split time between the Blackhawks and the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs across three seasons before being part of a four-player 2019 trade where he went to Carolina while Calvin de Haan was sent to the Blackhawks.

Forsling spent the 2019-20 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers but never played for the Hurricanes, who twice put him on waivers. He cleared the first time but not the second as Florida claimed him in 2021, with former Panthers coach Joel Quenneville having a say in that as he had the defenseman with the Blackhawks. Quenneville didn’t last as he resigned in 2021 for his involvement in the Kyle Beach sexual abuse case, but Forsling has.

Playing in South Florida has allowed Forsling to thrive as he has developed into a legitimate top-pair defenseman that’s been critical to the Panthers’ recent success as a Presidents’ Trophy winner in 2021-22 and Stanley Cup finalist last season. He’s been their best defenseman and was a large reason why Florida still managed to flourish at the start of the year while blue-line teammates Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour recovered from offseason surgeries.

Forsling has evolved into a strong defender alongside Ekblad while giving Florida an added significant offensive element from the blue line. He had 13 goals and 41 points last season and is on pace to reach those totals this year despite not getting a lot of power-play time. To do this while on his third organization and once being claimed off waivers is a remarkable story on its own. To set himself up for life while performing at this level in such an important role for what might the NHL’s best team is icing on the cake. — Eric Stephens, NHL staff writer

What does this mean for the Panthers?

It means Zito is set on having a sustainable powerhouse in Sunrise.

Forsling was one of their key impending free agents and he would have had his share of suitors if he reached unrestricted status this summer, but it’s been clear that Zito wasn’t going to allow that to happen. You don’t let organizational success stories like this get away. It’s a long commitment, but Zito locked him in at a rate in line with other top-pairing defenders, and he plays a smooth game where he could age gracefully as he moves into his 30s. You could make the case that he outperforms his new contract with more seasons like the last two.

Zito now has a major piece of his defense signed long-term while also having core forwards Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk locked up through the rest of the decade. Ekblad is signed through next season and franchise goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is in place through 2025-26. Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett are under contract through 2024-25. Florida also has support players in forwards Evan Rodrigues and Eetu Luostarinen and defenseman Niko Mikkola in place for multiple years. Zito has more of the team’s future covered while addressing another potential run at the Cup in trading for Vladimir Tarasenko.

Now Zito can turn his financial business toward Sam Reinhart and Montour. He’d like to keep the two from becoming UFAs but they’re going to command a lot, especially Reinhart as the 28-year-old is having the mother of contract years with what figures to be a 50-goal season. The spike in the salary cap is coming at the right time where it’s possible the Panthers can retain both. After the Forsling extension, Cap Friendly estimates Florida having a little more than $21 million available for 2024-25.

Zito, who also re-upped grinder Jonah Gadjovich on a new two-year extension, does have other UFAs across his lineup but defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and goalie Anthony Stolarz are probably the most significant outside of Reinhart and Montour. Anton Lundell does hit restricted status and some hardball might be played there as the 22-year-old No. 3 center is coming out of his entry-level deal and won’t be eligible for salary arbitration. Making it all work won’t be easy, but the GM has made Florida a destination team for players and that alone is a big enticement for Reinhart and Montour to stay. — Stephens 

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(Photo: Sergei Belski / USA Today)

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