EL SEGUNDO, CA — The 2010 National Hockey League Entry Draft was a deep one, with a vast majority of the first round picks making to the NHL to stay.
But the same cannot be said for the 15th overall pick in that draft, Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Derek Forbort, who played 14 games with the Kings last season, but was a healthy scratch more often that not.
Back in June 2010, with the draft held at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi referred to Forbort as a “project.”
“One of the things with Derek, when we picked him—when you’re picking in a spot that high—±hat was the year [Anaheim Ducks defenseman] Cam Fowler was dropping—we had Derek [ranked] high, and when you’re picking that high, you’re usually talking about players who are going to play in [the NHL in] a hurry,” said Kings Vice President, Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Michael Futa. “But we felt that this was a kid who was going to take the time in college and was going to be a project.”
“He was an excellent skater, coming out of a very low level of hockey before he went to the University of North Dakota,” added Futa. “This was all very new to him. He was getting first-hand, great treatment and great coaching, starting to learn what it was going to be like at the next level, and the next level for him, at that point, was college.”
Forbort was struck by a culture shock, of sorts.
“In a case like that, you actually see what a huge transformation it is for a kid like that, and sometimes it takes longer for a kid to realize what it’s like to be a professional hockey player,” Futa noted. “It was a big enough adjustment for Derek, coming out of high school, to go to that level, and we don’t have the kind of access to a college player that we do with the major junior kids. It was a big step for him.”
“I think he’s worked exceptionally hard, he’s bought in, he’s had kind of timely injuries, and he actually was coming up at a time when we were really solid on the back end,” Futa added. “It was not an easy lineup to crack, by any stretch. We were in zero hurry to rush anybody.”
Indeed, six years have passed since Forbort was drafted. Nevertheless, the Kings aren’t dismayed by that fact.
“He’s come along nicely,” said Futa. “I think he had a great experience during the  Calder Cup run [with the American Hockey League edition of the Manchester Monarchs]. They were champions. I think [head coach Mike Stothers and assistant coach Chris Hajt] did an excellent job [with him]. The first year, it was more of a depth role and being a part of it, as opposed to last year’s long playoff run [with the AHL’s Ontario Reign] where he was on the ice all the time in important situations, playing a lot of big minutes.”
As reported earlier, Forbort began last season with the Kings due to injuries in their defensive corps.
“I think I had a good camp, and I was lucky to be able to stick around here for the first half of the season,” said the 24-year-old, 6-4, 216-pound native of Duluth, Minnesota. “I wish I would’ve done more with my opportunity, but I’m just excited to be back for another two years, or whatever happens. I’m excited to get back to work and get after it.”
Forbort scored his first NHL goal and contributed one assist for two points, with a =1 plus/minus rating and 17 penalty minutes in 14 games with the Kings last season.
Even though he saw limited ice time and played in relatively few games with the Kings last season, Forbort indicated that he got a lot out of the experience.
“I think now I know what the league is like from being around it for half a year, playing in 14 games,” he said. “I know now what it takes to play in this league and what you have to do every day to stay in the league. I think that’s a big benefit for me.”
Forbort ended the season with the Reign, playing in 40 regular season games, scoring two goals and adding eight assists for ten points, with a +13 plus/minus rating and 40 penalty minutes. In the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, he played in 13 games, recording two assists and earned a +1 plus/minus rating.
Forbort was slowed a bit by injury late last season.
“I had a little thing going on last season—a sports hernia, core thing,” he noted. “It was never that bad, but it was definitely something that was just hanging around. I had surgery this summer and got it fixed, so I’m back at 100 percent.”
Being healthy now, Forbort has to focus on keeping things simple.
“When you’re that big and you skate that well—the one thing about Derek is that he’s got an excellent stick, as well,” Futa noted. “The ability to defend and make simple plays—we’ve always said, ‘why can’t this kid be a 6-4 [Rob] Scuderi?’ When you skate that well, defend that well, and you’ve got that good of a stick against the rush, if you can simplify your game with the puck—that’s one of those things that our development team has really worked hard on with Derek—simplifying things. Don’t try to create stuff that isn’t there. Make good, hard, crisp passes and good decisions.”
“Not everybody sees all the options on the ice, like a Drew [Doughty] or a [Jake] Muzzin,” Futa added. “Some people just have to be patient and make the good, hard, safe play. There are people making a lot of money in the league by doing that, and with Derek’s tools, size and ability to skate, he should be able to defend and play a good, safe game at the next level.”
Forbort seems to have gotten the message.
“I need to be consistent with my play,” he said. “I’m a simple player. I need to be hard to play against every time in the corners and make that good, first breakout pass. That’s my job. I just have to make sure I do that every time.”
As a big guy, people stereotypically think that Forbort should be a big hitter and a fighter. But that’s never been a big part of his game and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Not everybody is a [Kevin] Bieksa, or a stick-swinging Bryan Marchment, or a cross-checking, nail-spitting animal,” said Futa. “But you can still play hard. Teams should be aware when he’s on the ice. They should be aware of his physical presence just because he’s that big and he defends that well. That’s something opponents have to know and kind of fear when he’s on the ice—that they’re going to have trouble getting to the net because he’s big, covers a lot of ice, and he’s got an excellent stick.”
“It’s challenging yourself to be great in an area where you have the tools to be great in that area, as opposed to trying to take yourself out of that comfort zone, trying to be something that you’re not,” added Futa.
Futa noted the importance of Forbort being fully recovered from surgery for his sports hernia and staying healthy so that the Kings can get a long, hard look at him in training camp.
“He’s got to stay healthy,” said Futa. “Unfortunately, he got injured at the end of the year, and spent a lot of his summer rehabbing. It’s hard to evaluate a player when he’s injured. But he trained hard over the summer and he’s got a good opportunity to make the big club this year.”
Forbort is also going to have to show growth in terms of being a competitor.
“It’s that consistent, competitive edge,” Futa observed. “There’s a mentality and a burn that you can see in certain player’s eyes if they’re at a consistent level on a nightly basis, and there are players who don’t have that every night. I think the players who last and survive in the National Hockey League have that burn.”
It’s still early in training camp, and anything could happen with the Kings’ defensive corps. There is at least one spot up for grabs, and Forbort is just one of the players in the mix. But should he fail to make the big club’s roster, he must clear waivers before he can be assigned to the Reign—he could easily be claimed on waivers by another NHL team—Forbort’s road to a career in the NHL might not run through Los Angeles.
“I’m not thinking about that,” he emphasized. “The only thing I thought about this summer in my training is making this team and playing for this team. That’s the only thing on my mind.”
“To be honest, I’ve blocked that out. My main focus is making this team and staying here. If [that doesn’t happen], I’ll adjust, but that’s not on my mind right now.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Derek Forbort. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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