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2016-17 in Review: Can Derek Forbort Avoid the Sophomore Slump?

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The defenseman’s rookie season was an unexpected success, and he’ll look to take a step forward instead of a step back in 2017-18.

Dallas Stars v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Can Derek Forbort avoid a sophomore slump in his second season with the Kings?

Rookies are tough to predict, aren’t they? Unless you’re a McDavid or a Matthews, one can only have a certain degree of certainty about how you’re going to do on your first go-round in the NHL. Having said that, I thought we had Derek Forbort pinpointed pretty well after six post-draft years of waiting for a full-time gig. After Forbort was re-signed last summer, Robyn surmised that Forbort had “a lot of potential as a very good 5D in the NHL and even has a ceiling to be even a 4D.” Andrew softened Forbort’s #8 finish in the Top 25 Under 25 by pointing out, “it's still not too late for Forbort to carve out a solid NHL career for himself as a bottom-pair defenseman.” Dean Lombardi’s prognosis (on our site!) was understandably more optimistic, but even he mentioned Forbort had to take “that next step into a Scuderi,” i.e. a strong second-pairing defenseman.

Well, for all intents and purposes, Forbort was a (a) strong and (b) second-pairing player last season. Hitting your expected ceiling in your first season is pretty good! The question is: can we expect Forbort to be the same player next season?

The second-pairing part is easier to quantify; immediately after Brayden McNabb’s injury, Forbort’s ice time leapt into the neighborhood of Jake Muzzin’s and Alec Martinez’s. Before November 3, 2016, Forbort had yet to exceed 15 minutes of ice time in a game. That night he played 22:55. Over the final 72 games of the season, he exceeded 15 minutes in every single game, and only dipped below 17 minutes on one occasion. (The chart below is via hockeyviz.com, which has some great team-specific and player-specific visuals.)

Of course, the primary reason Forbort’s ice time was so consistent was that he spent nearly all of it with Drew Doughty. At even strength, Forbort and Doughty were on the ice 26% of the time, the most of any pairing. (The Martinez-Muzzin combo took up 20% of the available minutes.) Forbort’s next-most common partner was Martinez, and their pairing’s ice time was about 15% of the Doughty-Forbort pairing’s. Simply put, Doughty played a lot of minutes, and Forbort played most of those. Will this continue? Even if John Stevens moves away from the Muzzin-Martinez pair which suffered disastrous on-ice results last season, it seems like Forbort has locked himself into a top-four role to begin the season, especially since he did spend some time with Alec Martinez. As for the rest of the season, it might take an injury or a decline in play similar to Brayden McNabb’s to knock him down.

That leads us back to part (a): is Forbort primed to repeat last year’s results?

Starting cautiously: a decline is certainly possible. Although LA’s goal differential was strong all year with Forbort on the ice, we pointed out numerous times that his possession numbers were among the weakest for the team’s defensemen, even as he skated with Drew Doughty. Were those goal differentials strong because of Doughty’s presence? There might be something to that; the Kings’ goaltending has been consistently better with Doughty on the ice than without him on the ice. It’s possible that Forbort contributed to the pair’s success on that front, but we simply don’t have a lot of history to go off of. 82 games isn’t enough to decide that Forbort will consistently be a player whose goal differentials are consistently better than his shot differentials. That was certainly the case last year, though! (The “On” numbers below are the Kings with Forbort, the “Off” numbers are the Kings without him.)

more charts like this one are available to subscribers at https://www.patreon.com/hockeyviz

Forbort’s 51.5% even strength Corsi For% was well behind every other Kings defenseman save for Matt Greene, and the Kings actually allowed more scoring chances than they took with Forbort out there. These would be red flags for a veteran, but Forbort is not a veteran. He’s a rookie — albeit a rookie who’s been around the block a few times — and he got a much ruder welcome to the Kings than expected. Muzzin and Martinez blossomed when given increased responsibility, but they got a year or two (or more) of easy assignments and offensive opportunities before getting big minutes. Forbort got a few weeks.

So, from an individual perspective, I’m inclined to praise Forbort for not letting the team down, and I’m inclined to breathe a sigh of relief that his elevation to a high-minute role didn’t contribute to the Kings missing the playoffs. LA treated this offseason as if they’re expecting Forbort to improve and grow more comfortable in his role, and some improvement will be necessary from Forbort in the possession game to ensure that he’s again a bright spot on the Kings’ blueline. It’s anyone’s guess what his point total will be, and his value isn’t really tied to his scoring, but that will be another factor in how we see his 2017-18 season.

In the meantime, he’s making $650,000 this year, he can kill penalties, he didn’t take too many penalties, he’s gotten practice in protecting leads, and I envy how long his arms are. That’s not a bad starting point for his sophomore season.