LA Kings D Prospect Derek Forbort Now Taking Big Steps Forward

LOS ANGELES — Having been selected in the 2010 National Hockey League Entry Draft, there have been murmurs about whether or not Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Derek Forbort might turn out to be a draft bust.

The 23-year-old may never fulfill some people’s expectations simply because he was the Kings’ first round pick (15th overall) that year, when the draft was held at Staples Center in Los Angeles—all first round picks are supposed to become superstars, right?

But even if you’re not among those who are prone to having unrealistic expectations, it has been five years since Forbort was drafted, yet only now is the 6-4, 218-pound native of Duluth, Minnesota being considered as one of the Kings’ top prospects, one who is close to making it to the NHL.

One reason was illness and injury during his three seasons at the University of North Dakota. During his freshman year, he contracted mononucleosis, and the after effects of the illness showed up in his play the rest of that season.

He also suffered an injury that affected his play throughout much of his sophomore season. But the most significant factor that slowed Forbort’s development was that he simply didn’t fit in with the Fighting Sioux.

“My three years in college—for whatever reason, [my development] was a little slower,” he admitted. “Maybe my game didn’t adapt to the college game.”

Development Took Off At The Professional Level

After two years in the American Hockey League, Forbort’s confidence has grown steadily, along with his ice time, and by the time the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs came around, he found himself on the ice in all situations, not to mention the most critical ones, helping lead the Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.

“When you watched the [2015 Calder Cup] playoffs, [Vincent] Loverde and [Andrew] Bodnarchuk were the veteran [defensive] pair,” said Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, who also served as general manager for the Manchester Monarchs, and will continue in that role with the Ontario Reign, which is now the Kings’ AHL affiliate. “But [Kevin] Gravel and Forbort were the other pair that were thrown over [the boards] every other shift.”

“The thing for us, when you watch these young guys, at the beginning of the season, on the last shift of the game, with the face-off in their end, it seemed to be the older, veteran guys who were out there,” added Blake. “They were the ones who were reliable. What happened was that the team really grew, and these young kids began to contribute at a really high level.”

“Throughout the playoffs, when it came down to really important face-offs and you had the last [line] change, it became [the young players like Forbort] who were out there. They were the ones who were leading the team. That’s the impressive thing about Forbort is the strides he’s taken, responsibility-wise, where they trust him to be on the ice now, in all situations.”

Forbort attributed his increased ice time, especially in critical situations, to being more consistent this past season.

“I thought I played pretty solid throughout the whole season,” said Forbort. “I don’t think I had many ups and downs. That was one of my goals going into the season, to be more consistent throughout, and I think I did a good job with that.”

“You try to elevate your game in the playoffs—every game means a lot more,” added Forbort. “Maybe that had something to do with it. I was able to take my game to a new level.”

Biggest Step Forward: Making That First Pass

The most noticeable improvement in Forbort’s game last season was his ability to make the first pass coming out of the defensive zone.

“As far as playmaking goes, on plays clearing the zone, I’ve just been much more effective than I was in college,” he said. “The college style is to bank the puck off the glass [to clear the zone]. In the pros, they want you to make plays coming out of the zone. That was a nice change-up for me, to have poise and make plays with the puck.”

“I’ve improved my playmaking, definitely,” he added. “Making plays coming out of the zone is a big part of the game today, and I think I did a good job of that this year. That’s something that in my rookie year, I didn’t do as well last year. I don’t know if that’s [due to a lack of] confidence and not having enough poise to make the play through the middle, but I worked hard to make that part of my game this year.”

“I think it just comes with maturity, and having the poise to go back for the puck, knowing what’s coming, and knowing where you’re going to make the play before it happens. Another year in the American league just got me so much more comfortable in making those plays. It was a lot easier to do that in my second year than it was in my first year.”

Forbort’s rather dramatic improvement in keeping his head up, seeing the ice and making that first pass did not go unnoticed.

“I would say the shorter passes—the simple play [is where Forbort has made the most progress],” Blake noted. “There’s times when he would come around the net, and the easy play was to the winger. But he tended to look for a different kind of play. If that works, it’s great. But if it doesn’t, you’re in your own zone. A lot of times, that goes unnoticed because you just spend a little bit more time in your own zone, and you’re out. What he’s done is simplify that. He makes that first play now.”

“It might be a five-foot pass, it might be a defenseman-to-defenseman pass that people take for granted, but you have to be able to do those on a consistent basis,” added Blake. “I think that’s been the biggest change in his game. He’s able to accomplish that now, and simplify things.”

As noted earlier, the ability to make that first pass coming out of the zone is critical in today’s NHL, much more than it was just a handful of years ago.

“We’ve really tried to narrow down that first pass,” Blake explained. “You can play a long time in the National Hockey League if you’re a defenseman and you can make that first pass and defend.”

“We have great forwards,” Blake elaborated. “They all want the puck, and they want to be able to get it in the defensive zone. If you’re a smart enough defenseman and can make that first play to get it to a forward who will make the next play, then we’re out of our zone. Now you’ve become an even better defensive defenseman because we have the puck and we’re out of our zone.”

Not A Big Hitter, But Still Aggressive, Physical and Effective

At 6-4, 218 pounds, many would expect Forbort to be a punishing hitter, the type of player who would turn opposing players into board advertising or a heaping pile of humanity in open ice. But that has never been part of his game.

“I’ve just never really been able—I try to be physical in the corners, but as far as open ice hits, I’ve never really done that,” he said. “I just never had that in my arsenal—the timing of it—I’ve just never been able to figure that out, so I’ve always had to rely on my skating and my stick to defend. I’ve always had to have a good stick and skate well.”

Blake, who knows a thing or two about physical play and delivering punishing hits, pointed out that being a big hitter has never been a requirement for a hockey player, noting that Forbort compensates in other ways.

“I don’t if that’s ever going to be a big part of his game, running guys,” said Blake. “But you can be physical with your stick, and I think that’s where he’s been more impressive—holding the blue line on rushes, making the other team dump the puck, or get rid of it. He’s quick to close in the defensive zone—if player’s backs are to him, he’s quick to close on that.”

“It’s not so much that you’ve got to run guys through the boards to be aggressive,” added Blake. “You just have to be there, and you can use your stick. Guys do that in different ways, and I do think he has that aggressive side. Being aggressive, for Derek, is more his style of defense. Closing gaps quick, holding the blue line. That’s what makes for his aggressive play.”

Having a good stick and improving his positional play have been keys for Forbort’s development over the last two seasons.

“I’ve always had a good poke check,” Forbort noted. “I’ve always had a good stick, and over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at it. It’s become a really big part of my game and how I defend.”

“[Kings Senior Advisor/Development Coach] Mike O’Connell [and I] would watch video all the time,” Forbort added. “It was always about where I was on the ice, [relative] to the puck—how I was defending with my positioning and angles to the net. I think I’ve become pretty good at that over the years, and I owe a lot of that to Mike O’Connell and the work he’s done with me.”

What’s Next?

Forbort isn’t likely to become an offensive defenseman like a Drew Doughty. Nevertheless, he knows that he has to improve the offensive side of his game if he wants to make it to the NHL.

“Something I’ve always had to work on is getting more pucks to the net, and create more offense out of that,” he observed. “I’m not going to be a flashy guy who’s up on the rush, making unbelievable offensive plays. But I think I can contribute offensively by getting pucks to the net for tips, rebounds and screens. I think that’s going to be a big part of my game next year.”

“I need to improve on getting past that first [defending] forward and getting the puck down to the scoring area for the forwards—maybe a harder shot, or changing the angle to avoid getting shots blocked,” he added. “My shot, getting pucks to the net from the blue line, and being able to make that first pass coming out of the zone are things I need to work on the most. I’ve done a good job at those things, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in those areas.”

Blake also pointed to the need for Forbort to get pucks to the net as an area he must work on, but added that he has improved in that area, as well.

“On the offensive side of the puck, when he’s at the blue line, it’s the aggressive nature to get the puck on net,” Blake noted. “That kind of aggressiveness has increased in Derek. That comes with confidence, to a point, but it’s also understanding the system and believing in your own skill. Derek is a big person, but he skates well, and he uses that to his advantage to be aggressive.”

“The big thing is to simplify my game, to make the play that’s in front of me,” said Forbort. “That’s what you have to do at the next level—make the right play every time.”

Last February, Forbort got a brief call-up to the Kings. He practiced with the team, and even got into a pre-game warm-up or two, but he did not play in a game.

Despite that, Forbort said that the brief call-up was good experience.

“Just taking a couple of [pre-game] warm-ups—it was good experience to see what it’s like, to see how guys prepare, and to see the atmosphere in that building,” he said. “It was a great learning experience for me to see how those guys do it, and to see what it’s like up there.”

“There’s a lot more games up there, throughout the week, unlike the American league, which is always on the weekends,” he added. “I saw how important recovery is. You’ve got to be ready to go every other night up there. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t have a full week to prepare for the weekend. You’re going every other [night], so it’s about how guys treat their bodies, and guys prepare. That really goes a long way towards making you the player you are.”

With training camp scheduled to begin in less than three weeks, even though he is not likely to make the Kings opening night roster this season, Forbort will be playing the 2015-16 season in Southern California, most likely with the Reign.

“I’m excited [about playing in Southern California],” he said. “Hopefully, it’s with the Kings, but we’ll see what happens in training camp. Either way, it’ll be nice to be out there—the weather. I’ve heard they have great fans in Ontario, and that they have a great building, so that’ll be exciting.”

Blake indicated that Forbort’s development is on pace, and his outlook is good.

“He now understands the game more,” said Blake. “It’s hard for a defenseman. When, and if, he gets a chance to play in the NHL, it’s going to be based off his defensive play. He’s a big body who skates well, uses his stick well, and he shuts plays down. That’s his number one staple, and that’s what’s going to get him to the next level.”

“I think the last two years as a pro, as far as my development is concerned, have been the two biggest jumps,” said Forbort. “I like to think that I’m on my way. I’m working my [rear end] off to get there [to the NHL].”

“I just want to keep improving. I did that last year, I think. I just want to keep getting better every year, every day.”

LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Derek Forbort, shown here during the Kings’ 2013 Rookie Tournament. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.

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