Anton Forsberg was put in a tough situation last season. Extremely tough. For one, he had gigantic shoes to fill.
The Blackhawks traded Scott Darling’s negotiating rights to Carolina in April of 2017 after he was set to become an unrestricted free agent, ending a three-year run in Chicago where he became one of the most reliable backup goaltenders in franchise history. They don’t win a Stanley Cup in 2015 without him, plain and simple.
So when Forsberg was acquired by the Blackhawks later that summer as part of the package that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Brandon Saad back to Chicago, there was an immediate expectation that he would become Corey Crawford’s backup. After all, Forsberg was coming off a season in which he posted a 2.28 goals against average and .926 save percentage in 51 appearances with the Blue Jackets’ minor league affiliate following a year in which he led them to their first ever Calder Cup championship by winning all nine playoff starts and posting a 1.34 GAA, .949 save percentage and two shutouts.
But when Crawford went down with a concussion in late December, it essentially fell on Forsberg’s shoulders to keep the Blackhawks in the playoff picture. And that was probably an unfair ask of a 25-year-old netminder who had appeared in only 10 NHL games going into the season.
"Everything is a learning process and last year, that was obviously not the plan that [Crawford] was going to go down and be out for the season,” Forsberg told NBC Sports Chicago. “I felt like I [had] a lot of good games, but I had my dips and had a lot of bad games too. That's something that you really can't have if you're a starting goalie, and that's what I've been working on down here. Try to keep my game together, and especially if you have maybe a couple goals [against] in the first period, try to work your way through things and try to get back, and I feel like that's been pretty good down here.”
Staying even-keeled was certainly a challenge for Forsberg last season. If he gave up a goal, too often it turned into a second and third, and fairly quickly at that as he was pulled in six of his 30 starts. It snowballed, which became a mental battle.
”Yeah, obviously that happened a couple times and everyone knows about it,” Forsberg said. “That’s tough for the mental game and everything, and that's something I've been thinking about that I have to work on. I think about it every day. I try to improve it, but I think it's gotten better for sure."
To put themselves in a more stable position this season, the Blackhawks signed veteran Cam Ward to a one-year contract, which put Forsberg in a weird spot. When Crawford returned, the team carried three goaltenders before eventually placing Forsberg on waivers. He cleared, and has since been with the Rockford IceHogs, where he’s working toward regaining his confidence as a potential No. 1 goalie and NHL backup.
While he would surely prefer to be playing in the NHL — that’s everyone’s goal — it’s been a good reset for Forsberg.
“I try to stay away from the goalies cause they're a little different,” IceHogs interim head coach Derek King said. “But could he be an NHL goalie, an NHL backup goalie? Maybe on some other teams. But when you have a couple good goalies up there in Crawford and Ward, pretty hard to beat those guys out. I think he's done a great job with us. ... He’s been a real pro.”
In 19 games with Rockford, Forsberg is 9-9-1 with a 2.68 GAA and .917 save percentage. He’s recorded a save percentage of at least .923 in five of his last seven starts, a positive development on a team that’s near the bottom in the goal differential department (minus-25).
“I've been feeling pretty good,” Forsberg said. “The results as a team haven't really been there, but I feel like at the beginning I was trying to get into it after not playing for a long time. But lately I've been feeling really good. I feel like it's been a process, and it's been better and better."
With Collin Delia thriving in Chicago and Kevin Lankinen sharing starts in Rockford, it’s hard to picture where Forsberg fits into the Blackhawks’ plans going forward. He will be a restricted free agent this summer, meaning his rights still belong to the Blackhawks even if he rejects their qualifying offer — it's worth noting Forsberg is arbitration eligible, although it's hard to envision it getting to that point. If the Blackhawks don't extend an offer to him, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
But that's a conversation to be had in the summer. Just like the same attitude he had at the beginning of the season before he was put on waivers, Forsberg is trying to focus on only the things he can control right now and let the rest take care of itself.
"I get that question a lot," Forsberg said. "It's not something I try to think about. I know whatever happens, it's all about me, how I play, how my game is going. At the end of the day if there's going to be an opportunity there then I have to prepare and it could be different ways. But it's all about me at the end of the day."