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Larsson finding learning curve accelerated

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils
Larsson receives a pointer from assistant coach Larry Robinson.

(Getty/NHL Images)
Through the first four games of this season, 18-year-old rookie Adam Larsson was leading the New Jersey Devils defensemen in ice time, averaging a whopping 24 minutes per game. It was about three minutes more than defense partner Andy Greene was averaging up until that point.

It's a far cry from what Greene, an undrafted free agent out of Miami University, went through in his first four games as a rookie with the Devils in 2007. In game four, Greene took just five shifts and played a mere 3:44 in a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I don't remember exactly what happened," Greene said with a smile about that night. "I think at the time they only played two lines. They had the (Vincent) Lecavalier line with (Martin) St. Louis and (Vinny) Prospal and (Brad) Richards on the other line. So at the time, I don't think they really wanted a young person out there against them, because they literally played the whole game."

I've seen a lot of young guys over the years been built up to unrealistic expectations. There's still hurdles ahead here as the season goes and as the League gets tougher and tougher. But this kid has handled everything we've thrown at him so far. - Coach Peter DeBoer
Four years later, Greene found himself the veteran playing with the young person, and there have been no limitations for Larsson so far this season. Devils coach Peter DeBoer hasn't shied away from using the fourth pick in this year's NHL Draft in all situations -- against top lines, on the penalty kill, late in close games.

Greene said it's largely because while Larsson is just 18, his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, composure and skill set is well beyond his years.

"He's very poised," Greene said. "He's good with the puck and handles it well. He doesn't get too high or too low out there. I got to skate with him a little bit before the season started, and you can tell the things that he had. You just weren't sure how it would change once we got into game-like action. But it's been very good. You wouldn't be able to tell that he's an 18-year-old."

Larsson said he still has a lot to learn, including how not to injure teammates. Following a recent practice, forward Dainius Zubrus was playfully ribbing Larsson after he was drilled by the young Swede's slap shot. Larsson sheepishly walked to Zubrus' locker, still in his skates and pads, to examine the injury and apologize.

There's not much in the way of ego with Larsson, who said he didn't expect to be logging the minutes and receiving the responsibility he has this season.

"Of course not," Larsson said. "But it feels good. Hopefully I can hold this up in the next game and so on. It's been pretty good. I think we (Greene and Larsson) complement each other pretty good. He's very skilled and that helps."

For a true critique of how a defenseman is playing, it's best to ask for it from a goaltender.

With Martin Brodeur battling a shoulder injury in the first couple weeks, backup and fellow Swede Johan Hedberg has had a pretty good view of what Larsson is doing on the ice. Just like Greene, Hedberg raved about Larsson's poise.

"There's going to be mistakes like everybody else, and maybe even more so for a young guy that's trying to be productive and do maybe more than other guys," Hedberg said. "But so far, he's shown a lot of composure. He's very mature in his game. To see how calm he is on the ice is really helping me. I try to be verbal and vocal and talk to him and tell him where I want him to be on the ice. But he's got a great head on him. It's been fun so far."

Defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who has been paired with Larsson in the Devils' past few games, knows all about playing with a teenage defenseman. He was paired with Tyler Myers two years ago when he was with the Buffalo Sabres and Myers was just 19 years old. Myers won the Calder Trophy that year with a combination of steady defensive play and a wealth of production from the blue line with 11 goals and 37 assists.

Larsson has yet to show much of an offensive side to his game -- through nine games, he still doesn't have a point -- but he's been solid defensively. Tallinder said when it comes to comparing Larsson to Myers, he sees one big similarity that's becoming a common theme with the Devils' rookie.

"It's their poise with the puck and the patience they have," said Tallinder, who was playing with another young defenseman, Mark Fayne, before teaming up with Larsson. "He's 18, you know? Usually that takes a while before you notice the poise and calmness that the guy has. Maybe he's not the same kind of player that jumps into the rush like Myers was, but they definitely have the same kind of calmness and poise."

DeBoer doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself with Larsson, and rightfully so. It's a little too early in Larsson's career to start chiseling a statue of his likeness to be placed in the Hall of Fame, and DeBoer knows that patience is a must with someone as young as Larsson.

"I coached junior hockey for almost 15 years, so I always temper my enthusiasm with young guys," DeBoer said. "I've seen a lot of young guys over the years been built up to unrealistic expectations. There's still hurdles ahead here as the season goes and as the League gets tougher and tougher. But this kid has handled everything we've thrown at him so far. "

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