Like all teams preparing for the NHL draft, the Washington Capitals went through countless mock drafts leading up to the 2012 entry draft. With two picks in the first round that year, the Capitals planned on going with skill with their No. 11 pick and then hoped to get Tom Wilson -- a player some saw as a Milan Lucic-type -- with their second first-round pick. They got Wilson with the No. 16 pick and were thrilled.
It was their first pick, however, that came with a curveball. Their most likely projections and expectations were that they’d end up with Codi Ceci, a defenseman they liked from the Ottawa 67’s. One scenario they didn’t anticipate in those mock drafts was that Sweden’s Filip Forsberg would slip to them at No. 11. He was ranked as high as the No. 3 overall by some, and the likelihood of him slipping outside the top 10 wasn’t something Washington expected. Really, nobody did.
But there he was, available, when the Capitals were on the clock in 2012 with their first pick. You’d think there would have been a sprint to the podium to land a prospect rated as highly as Forsberg, the memory of a dominant performance in the Ivan Hlinka tournament earlier that season one that helped cement him as a high-end prospect.
There wasn’t a sprint. Even with his high rankings, the Capitals were split internally. Some scouts liked him, some didn’t. They took a couple minutes to decide and then pulled the trigger. They took Forsberg.
With Alexander Semin gone, this gave the Capitals a potential power forward in the system to replace him. One who wasn’t necessarily known for his playmaking abilities, but one already armed with an NHL-ready shot and strong two-way sensibilities.
There were still doubts in the organization about the pick, but it was hailed externally as a steal. Then he showed up for a summer camp in Washington, and the internal doubters looked like they might be right. Forsberg looked timid. He looked slow. The coaching staff was wondering what the scouts saw in this kid from Sweden in the first place.
The Capitals thought they made a mistake.
If you’re the Capitals, you have two options here. You continue to develop the young player and plan long-term, hoping you’re wrong about the mistake and give him time to work things out. Or you trade him before the rest of the league starts to figure out he’s not as good as advertised, if that’s what you’re starting to believe.
With pressure from ownership to make the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season, the Capitals took the second option. For an organization that long preferred drafting and developing its own young players and thinking long-term, sometimes to the frustration of its own fans, it was a trade completely out of character.
It also turned out to be a big mistake.
Forsberg, we’re discovering, isn’t timid. He’s not too slow for the NHL. He’s lighting things up with the surprising Nashville Predators, who were thrilled to grab him at the 2013 trade deadline for Martin Erat and Michael Latta.
He has 17 points in 15 games for the Predators, who currently sit atop the Central Division -- the biggest powerhouse division in the league.
“It’s my second year here in North America and everything is good, more comfortable. I’m getting more comfortable on the smaller rink,” Forsberg said when we chatted on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s my second year coming in here for training camp. I kind of knew what to expect. It makes you more comfortable.”
The nerves that accompanied his first trips to North America, nerves that might help explain some of the early timidity, are gone. He also got a dose of confidence from Predators coach Peter Laviolette this summer, who reached out to him in Sweden with a simple message: Come into training camp in as good shape as possible, and you’re going to get a real opportunity, despite an up-and-down season the previous year.
“He had me in mind for his team,” Forsberg said. “It was just even more motivation.”
However, his desire for balance lost out to something he noticed between those three players -- immediate chemistry.
In Ribeiro, you had the great passing veteran center. In James Neal, the Predators had the forward with a dangerous shot and someone constantly looking to attack the net.
“Last night, he had 15 attempts and 10 shots,” Laviolette said during a Wednesday phone conversation. “Those are terrific numbers. That’s a strength of his.”
That left an opening on the left wing.
Laviolette liked Forsberg because he’s a big body strong enough to compete against the big teams in the West. He’s also discovering that he’s a remarkably sound decision-maker for a 20-year-old NHL player with just 33 games under his belt.
“He’s at much at ease passing the puck as shooting the puck. He’s not set on one or the other,” Laviolette said. “It’s a good complement to that line that he can see the ice and make plays.”
And that’s where Laviolette stops for the first of many reminders about Forsberg and his team.
“It’s early,” he said. “He is young, and it’s early.”
As it stands right now, that line has 13 goals together according to LeftWingLock.com. That’s equal to the production of much more heralded lines like Jeff Carter’s line with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli in Los Angeles, and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line of Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz.
Forsberg has jumped to the top of the Calder race, with 17 points -- five more than the next two rookies (one of whom is Andre Burakovsky, a talented winger the Capitals stole with the No. 23 pick the draft after trading Forsberg).
The Predators are in first place. It’s all a great November story.
But like Laviolette said, it’s early. Forsberg’ PDO, a metric that indicates luck, is at 113.3. PDO regresses towards the league average of 100. The Predators are shooting 15.32 percent when Forsberg is on the ice at even strength. Their goalies have a save percentage of .980 when he’s out there too. That won’t continue.
And the drop-off in production after that top line is pretty severe in Nashville. It’s a dangerous way to survive in the West when you only have one line going. The temptation for Laviolette to break up this trio in the name of balance may still win out.
The other red flag to the Predators' start is on special teams where they have the No. 22-ranked power play and No. 28-ranked penalty kill. That can’t last if they want to stay in the playoff race.
But it’s a heck of a lot easier to work out those problems when you’ve jumped out to a strong start and a potential star is starting to emerge on the wing.
“We’re all new, figuring it out. Working on it daily,” Laviolette said. “They’re a hard-working group … we’re not there yet. We have just had a good start, but it’s a long way to go.”