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MIXOLOGY: Larsen has Springfield Falcons above the fold

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Brad Larsen's hiring in Springfield didn't make headlines around the hockey world, but really, who cares?

The former hard-nosed NHL forward accepted the job as head coach of the Springfield Falcons after two years as an assistant coach under Rob Riley. He was 34 years old when he took the job (has since turned 35) and less than two years removed from a professional playing career with two NHL franchises.

Was it (in general) a low-key move? Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Coaching searches are often fluid situations and you never really know whose resume is going to cross your desk until it actually does, so when Larsen put his name into the mix, where it would lead was unclear.

May 21 was six months ago today, and so much has transpired in between.

Larsen dove headfirst into his first head coaching job – as many suspected he would do – and he’s managed to find an assortment of ingredients which produce an appetizing product.

His Falcons are 10-2-2 and holding down first place in both the AHL’s Northeast Division and Eastern Conference. They have given up 23 goals in 14 games, four fewer than the second-best defensive club, the Charlotte Checkers and are the second-highest scoring club in the conference.

That's impressive, but it gets better.

Stellar goaltending from Curtis McElhinney and Paul Dainton has been the crux of Springfield's defensive success, with McElhinney leading the AHL in several statistical categories, including GAA among goalies with more than four starts (1.41), wins (9) and shutouts (4).

But just exactly how has Larsen, a rookie head coach, got the job done?

One of the first things he asked of his club is accountability. Now, I know, we hear that word often in sports and it’s kind of trite sometimes. But in Larsen’s case, he asked that his players take ownership of the group and show up to the rink every day committed to their cause.

Every player brings it for the guy sitting next to him. Quality teams are built on trust, consistency, and effort, but their foundation is quality people.

From talking to some of the Falcons players, they’ve completely bought in. Each one of them believes in the philosophies, the approach, the systems and the clearly-defined roles that they are expected to perform on a nightly basis.

A prime example is their balanced attack: after opening the season with a top line of Jonathan Audy--Marchessault--Ryan Johansen--Cam Atkinson and not seeing game-to-game consistency, Larsen felt the time was right to make a change. He moved Tomas Kubalik up on Johansen’s right wing and slotted Atkinson on the right side of Matt Calvert and Nick Drazenovic.

Since the switch, the Falcons have been one of the AHL’s most consistent offensive clubs.

Six players have double-digit point totals (one is defenseman Tim Erixon with 11) and the top six forwards are a combined +47.

Balance up and down the lineup has been a pillar of Springfield’s success, and it extends all the way to the bottom six forwards, specifically captain Ryan Craig. The 30-year-old veteran has worn a letter with regularity during his pro career, and is in his second tour of duty as Falcons’ captain.

You see a lot of Brad Larsen in Ryan Craig, too: Craig doesn’t leave anything to chance and brings it every game without excuses. Whatever Larsen asks him to do, he does it. If there’s a message that needs conveyed, Craig can handle it.

If there’s a compliment appropriate for what the Falcons have accomplished so far, it’s that they are a "team" in the truest sense of the word. To this point, all aspects of their game have been firing on all cylinders and at times, they can make it look easy.

And even when there’s a bump in the road, they get right back up. Springfield answered a lackluster 2-1 loss in Wilkes-Barre with back-to-back road wins over the Norfolk Admirals, who had only lost once on home ice.

Any coach will tell you they’re nothing without good players, but in this case, the Falcons have benefited greatly from an organized, ambitious and calculated young head coach.

Larsen’s hiring may not have been front-page news six months ago, but now, his team is rightfully above the fold.

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