Watch Daniel Larsson
on the ice and the young Swedish netminder doesn’t immediately jump out at you as a star in the making. At 6-foot, 180-pounds, he is hardly an imposing figure. He’s not prone to making acrobatic saves, nor does he flash a lightning-quick glove.
Even his mask is undistinguished.
For the first half of the Griffins’ 2009-10 season, Larsson has worn a plain white mask, save a simple Red Wings' logo, the result of his old mask developing a crack a couple of weeks before the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs.
Ask Larsson about his favorite flavor of ice cream and you half expect him to choose vanilla. He’s so quiet and unassuming that you might lose him in an empty room.
As a goaltending prospect, however, Larsson is anything but ordinary.
“This kid is the real deal – he’s an excellent young goaltender,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “His numbers are only going to get better.”
Larsson came to the Griffins last season after winning the Leif “Honken” Holmqvist Trophy as the best goaltender in the Swedish Elite League. He promptly showed that the honor was no fluke by making a rapid adjustment to North American hockey.
He appeared in 40 games for the Griffins, earning a 22-12-2 record with five shutouts, a 2.76 GAA and a .907 save percentage. His exploits did not go unnoticed, as he became the ninth Grand Rapids goaltender in 13 years to be chosen to play in an all-star game.
Larsson, however, did struggle some in the second half of last season. He won only five of his last 13 decisions, including two of eight on the road.
“Daniel had a really good year last year, but after the all-star game, we thought he ran out of gas,” Fraser said.
As a result, Larsson took some extraordinary measures this summer. He focused on his diet as much as his workout regimen in an effort to add bulk to his frame and get stronger.
“I did a lot of biking and core exercises, and I tried to eat as much as possible,” Larsson said. “I wanted to build up my body and put on a little more weight. I had a good summer.”
He gained eight pounds and pronounced himself ready for his return to the Griffins, motivated to improve his play and determined to avoid any sort of a sophomore slump.
Larsson’s second year didn’t start exactly as he had planned, even though it had a promising beginning.
He opened the season on the Red Wings’ roster and travelled to Stockholm, Sweden, a much-ballyhooed trip for Detroit’s many Swedish skaters.
“It was a good experience, being able to practice with the team and to be around the guys and get to know them a little better,” Larsson said. “The games were in the city where I last played in Sweden, so it was good to see everybody again, to see all of my friends and family.”
Larsson wishes he had been able to see a little more action, but being the third goalie in Detroit’s pecking order meant, for better or worse, that he could only bide his time.
What made things even worse was the fact that his teammates were singing the Blues after dropping both games to St. Louis.
“There was a lot of pressure from all of the fans in Sweden,” Larsson said. “Even guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom said they were nervous before the game.”
More a distraction than a detriment to his progress, the Swedish trip nevertheless may have served to put Larsson a step behind. He returned to the U.S., where he had little time to practice in Grand Rapids before seeing game action.
He dropped his first start of the year, a 3-2 decision to Toronto, when the Griffins allowed a goal in the last minute of both the second and third periods. A week later, he gave up five goals on just six shots in a 7-4 loss to San Antonio.
“We threw him right into the fire and it was a big challenge for him,” Fraser said. “Some other young goaltenders might have fallen away after that and gotten all frustrated. Daniel just worked harder and now he’s returned to form and surpassed his play of last year.”
For his part, Larsson isn’t interested in making any excuses for his subpar start, although when pressed for an explanation, he admits that his timing may have been off a bit.
“It’s a little different game here than in the NHL,” he said. “I had a couple of rough games, but the whole team had a tough stretch, so there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Every team is going to have some down periods. We hadn’t really played together, so we didn’t really know each other. It’s always tough in the beginning of the season when you have new players.”
Undaunted, Larsson shrugged off the poor stats in characteristic, nonchalant fashion. After his horrendous outing in San Antonio, he won his next seven starts.
With goaltenders, it’s not what goes between the pads that matters so much as what happens between the ears after the puck goes into the net. How well he bounces back may determine how well he will perform over the long haul of a season or even a career.
Just as he seems to exhibit control over every facet of his play, Larsson seems to have a good handle on his emotions. As far as he’s concerned, once the damage is done, there’s no sense in getting worked up about it.
“Once the goal is in, five seconds later, it’s a new puck, a new game,” he said.
That’s one philosophical explanation and he’s sticking to it, even if he doesn’t completely believe it.
Truth be told, Larsson hates giving up the first goal.
“It depends upon what kind of goal it was,” he said, hedging a bit. “If it’s a really good goal, I don’t think about it because there’s not much else I could do. But if it’s something I maybe should have had or could have had, I get ticked off.”
If Larsson angrily slashes his stick at the puck, it’s unusual, partly because he doesn’t give up a lot of bad goals. Still, he makes his share of mistakes. He is, after all, still learning.
There’s a saying in hockey that a goalie should be his team’s best penalty killer. Larsson and teammate Thomas McCollum
have tried valiantly to fill the role this year, sometimes to no avail.
Through 32 games, the Griffins’ penalty killing ranked last in the AHL.
“We’ve taken a lot of penalties some games and those 5-on-3s can be pretty tough,” Larsson said. “As long as we keep getting penalties, it’s going to be something that we have to work on.”
Meanwhile, Larsson continues to tweak his game.
“The way this team plays is a little different from last year,” he said, noting that he’s seen more shots from the blueline this year. “I don’t know exactly why that is because I think we’re trying to play the same. Maybe the other teams have changed the way they play against us.”
To combat the opposing team’s effectiveness, Larsson has been trying to play further out of the net to cut the angle on point shots. Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard has been trying to get him to move his feet more.
“He tells me to be out of the blue,” Larsson said, alluding to the color of the goaltending crease. He admits it is a challenge. “I don’t like running around all over the place. I like to keep things simple and not overplay the puck.”
In the end, it’s all about stopping the puck, a skill that Larsson seems to have in abundance.
“With the amount of young players we have on our team, we’re going to make mistakes and we need our goaltenders to wallpaper over some of those mistakes,” Fraser said. “Daniel and Thomas have done a really good job early in the season.”
Fraser, for one, is confident that Larsson is only going to get better.
“This kid’s going to do some real good things this year for us and for himself in catching the attention of a lot of important people in Detroit,” Fraser said.
At age 23, Larsson knows his best years are still ahead of him.
He was excited not only to start the season with the Red Wings, but also to get the call to serve as the backup on the bench when Chris Osgood was hit with the flu in November.
“It means that I’m one step closer (to playing in the NHL), so I’m going in the right direction,” he said. “The only thing I can do is do my best here and try to put up good numbers every night.”
While Larsson would enjoy playing in another all-star game, he knows he is somewhat of a long shot to be chosen for the 2010 Time Warner Cable AHL All-Star Classic in Portland, Maine, on Jan. 18-19.
“A lot of guys are putting up good numbers this year, so I don’t think I have a really good chance this year,” he said. “But if it happens, it would be really fun to be there.”
Larsson actually had his eyes more on the Olympics. He is on the short list for Team Sweden, which hopes to successfully defend its gold medal title at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
He was one of 34 players who was invited to attend a pre-Olympic orientation camp in Gothenburg last July. He was one of five goaltenders, a list headed by the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.
“Playing in the Olympics is the dream of every player,” Larsson said. “It would be a really good experience because it’s all the best players in the world.”
Although he didn’t make the preliminary roster announced Dec. 27 – former Griffins goalie Stefan Liv made the roster in his place – Larsson could still be added when the rosters are finalized before the Games begin on Feb.13. At the least, Larsson hopes to be able to catch a game or two on television. He’ll likely have other things on his mind, though, as the Griffins play 10 games in 17 days during the Feb. 12-28 stretch.