For Derek Forbort, jumping to the U.S. National Team Development Program from his Duluth, Minn., high school wasn't much different than being the new kid in school.
But rather than sit quietly on the sidelines, Forbort threw himself into the program and became a major piece of the team. And in the process earned accolades from scouts around the NHL.
The 6-foot-5, 198-pound defenseman is No. 9 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters.
Click image to enlargePaul Coffey
"Derek Forbort has good top-end ability at both ends," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in U.S.-based prospects, told NHL.com. "He's smart and skates so well, he's almost 6-5 and he's got everything there in front of him. It's just a matter of filling out and getting more experience and playing. He's probably a top-two defenseman in the NHL if he reaches his potential."
That's a pretty big claim, but Forbort's talents make it fit.
He had 28 points in 65 regular-season games, and he had 2 points in six games as the U.S. won gold at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Belarus; his plus-9 rating tied for the top spot at the tournament.
Kleinendorst told NHL.com that Forbort was able to have the success he did because of how he embraced the demanding national team program.
"Looking back, I was always impressed with him from Day 1 in regard to the way he handled himself as a person," said Kleinendorst, "how nothing seemed to overwhelm him, he never fell behind. He worked as hard as anybody. And what you saw at the rink and on the ice just reinforced to me that I shouldn't have been surprised."
Forbort admits it took him some time to adjust to things.
"It was difficult at first," Forbort told NHL.com. "The speed of the game out here made it a little tough, but it's been a good transition."
If Forbort did have issues, he certainly did a nice job hiding them.
"He never, from Day 1, the first practice, to the first game, during the first game, never looked uncomfortable," said Kleinendorst. "He wasn't turning pucks over because he wasn't ready to make the play. He just fit right in."
He made the adjustment off the ice, as well. Forbort moved out of his parents' home in Duluth and into the home of a billet family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and had to get used to a new school and new teachers, and make new friends.
"The off-ice stuff is every bit, or more important, than the on-ice," said Kleinendorst. "The on-ice was the easy part. I've said this to my guys, it's not about the hockey -- it's about everything else. You have to take it even farther, you have to take it to a kid who had to come in and adjust to his billet family … he went to school on the first day and had to learn his way around a high school that he wasn't used to, had to get to know the other kids in the student body. He also was trying to get to know his teammates here."
Now, you wouldn't know Forbort only has just one year in the program.
"He was a year behind, but if you were to go up to the weight room today and watch him work out, he's right there," said Kleinendorst. "He's right there with everybody in every way. He just did it in one year and not two."
Forbort is set to take his considerable skills next season to the University of North Dakota. Moving up another level, Kleinendorst said the only thing Forbort needs to add to his game is a bit of toughness.
"He needs a little more grit," said Kleinendorst. "If he can find that grit, that's going to help him elevate his game. And find it without taking anything else away. He has to take what he's got and add to it."
After watching Forbort make a near-seamless adjustment to the USNTDP program this season, Kleinendorst has no doubt he'll do just fine at the next level.
"I think that what we'll find is that because of the fact he is an elite player," said Kleinendorst, "when he gets to the University of North Dakota, I would be comfortable saying he'd do the exact same thing."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org