“This was my first season so there were a lot of good experiences this season, spent the whole season up here, go around the NHL and play every day. It was a good experience for sure.” - Johan Larsson
This may not seem like a startling quote to most regular observers of the Sabres, but it actually was somewhat of a sharp reminder to me about just where Johan Larsson is currently at in his professional career.
He'll turn 24 on July 25 and joined the Sabres organization just shy of 37 months ago.
As a member of Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Houston, he was in the midst of his first season in North America on the heels of two very impressive seasons in his homeland of Sweden.
Those experiences followed an outstanding performance at the World Under-18s in 2010, which led to Larsson being drafted in the second round by the Wild.
He transitioned well to Buffalo/Rochester and put in the time, all the while improving over parts of three seasons with the Amerks.
But he did have extended service with the Sabres: 28 games in 2013-14, and 39 games (including the final 27) in 2014-15.
That must be the reason why it rarely, if ever, crossed my mind that this was Larsson’s first season.
And it most certainly can help explain the inconsistencies we’ve seen through his first 142 NHL games.
Larsson couldn’t get that first goal out of the way in '13-14, and only in the final 20 games of '14-15 did he finally show an offensive touch, producing 5 goals and 14 points in that last five-week stretch.
The '15-16 season had many of the same stat lines:
-Goalless in his first 27 games, and two goals in his first 54
-No assists over a 30-game stretch, and one assist between Nov. 1 and March 28
But the truth doesn’t always lay within the numbers, even though they can make you feel better about yourself.
Larsson scored career-highs in goals (10) and points (17) with half of his goals counting as game-winners, good for a share of the team lead with Jack Eichel.
“It feels good to have a good run here the last 20 games. I feel really good. Just keep building and going into the summer with good confidence and come back stronger,” Larsson said on locker cleanout day.
More importantly he added, “I found my role here in the team and feel more comfortable.”
And that’s where the truth needs to lay.
Consider these two reports/assessments I received about Larsson after reaching out to some scouts I trust and respect:
"For me, I think Johan can be a very good two-way player with a stronger defensive aspect if he so chooses to see himself in that role. I believe many young players see the success they had in other leagues and feel it will translate to the NHL.
"If Buffalo is to be a contending team he can play a role on the 3rd line, supporting secondary offense, but giving smart defensive efforts. He must improve his skating and work on his first couple steps. If he does this, I see him having continued success in the NHL.
"He just needs to accept and realize where his game and value is, then work and be the best in that role.”
"Larsson has a good mix of skill, poise, hockey IQ and compete. He gets the most out of his frame and skating but has to work hard to get there.
"I like to think he could be as good of a fourth-line center and as successful as Luke Glendening (Detroit), Vern Fiddler (Dallas), or Casey Cizikas (NYI) - 20-24 points and 12-13 minutes of time-on-ice per night.
"He’s capable of filling in on third line on wing if needed shorter term, is kind of jack-of-all-trades type – master of none – or good not great in most areas. Larsson is an honest player who tries to play a complete game and rarely cheats.”
I am certainly not a scout, but I do watch (and have watched) an inordinate amount of hockey over the last four decades. And for whatever reason – maybe it’s their comparable size, birthplace, or unheralded arrival into the NHL – I keep thinking Larsson has a chance to become something like Samuel Pahlsson was for the Anaheim Ducks a decade ago.
If you need a refresher on Pahlsson, here’s a good piece Joe Pelletier put together a year ago.
And here’s a little side-by-side statistical comparison of “Angry Larry” (thank you for that one, Marcus Foligno!) and “Samme” as they began to carve their path in the NHL:
| ||Johan Larsson ||Samuel Pahlsson || |
|Drafted ||56th in 2010 by MIN ||176th in 1996 by COL || |
|Pts/gm in SEL (prior to NHL) ||0.48 ||0.46 || |
|Pts/gm in AHL ||0.74 ||0.61 || |
|Pts/gm 1st 3 NHL seasons ||0.26 ||0.24 || |
|Pts/gm 1st 4 yrs in AHL/NHL ||0.51 ||0.26 || |
|Age during first full NHL season ||23 ||23 || |
*Larsson played 164 games in the American Hockey League (compared to Pahlsson’s 13) while Pahlsson played five full seasons in the Swedish Elite League (compared to Larsson’s two)
Pahlsson would go on to play nearly 900 NHL games (regular season and playoffs), winning one Stanley Cup. He also represented Sweden in two Olympics (winning gold in 2006), four World Championships, and one World Cup.
He was a runner-up for the Selke Trophy in 2006-07 and six times over the course of his career, he received year-end votes for that award.
In a word, Pahlsson was consistent for about an eight-year stretch from 2002-2010.
And when I asked Larsson what was the one aspect of his game he’d like to improve upon the most he paused and responded, “You always want to be consistent through the season.”
I think he’s on the right path.