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DUNLEAVY: A CONVERSATION WITH JOHAN LARSSON

by Dan Dunleavy / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

I understand the world we live and play in when it comes to sports. I have been around the business since 1987. I have met many a player you root for or think you see something in from your own vantage point.

Be it as a reporter, commentator, play-by-play voice or as a member of a sports organization, I have held out hope for many a good guy, many players who I felt just needed a break or a bounce to go their way.

Upon my arrival in Buffalo in the 2013-14 season, I went to work on getting to know a new group of players, having spent my previous two NHL seasons with Toronto. One of the new faces I had heard some rumblings about in Buffalo was Swedish forward Johan Larsson.

There was good reason to be intrigued. A second-round draft pick from a solid hockey background. Strong skater and seemed to have the confidence young players need to have a chance at building a lengthy career for themselves.

I often talk about my experience with junior players, having called eight World Junior Championships. One of those tournaments was held north of Stockholm Sweden. I had a firsthand look at junior hockey player development in the hockey hotbed on the Baltic Sea.

Larsson’s early hockey life was literally surrounded by the waters of the Baltic.

Larsson’s home of Lau, Sweden is on the southeast coast of the Swedish Island Gotland. Like the waters that surrounded his early childhood, Larsson’s time with the Sabres has had moments of calmness about it, rough waters, and at times, short waves of success.

Now I realize the topic of the Sabres No. 22 will draw many to let their cat calls rain down from their fingertips to the keyboards of their phones, and Twitter accounts, but there is a reason the 23 year old is in the starting lineup of an NHL team. As of right now that reasoning lies with the coaching staff and the general manager of the hockey club. Between the two, we can only assume they are seeing enough of something to afford Larsson the chance to contribute.

I have seen moments of hard work and skating and drive from Larsson to think to myself, 22 or 23 years old is still too soon to just ignore the positives and let a lack of scoring be the be-all and end-all of a player’s existence in an NHL lineup.

Not for one minute am I suggesting scoring does not matter, it sure as heck does. But player development happens differently for each and every young man who puts on a jersey in the best league in the world.

Larsson says over the last couple weeks he feels he has improved his game. So what is "his game?"

Johan is a quiet, but smart and very confident player. From the outside looking in, I can only suggest that a player who has the power to skate the way Larsson has shown in flashes – maybe he felt at times he was already doing enough good things and just wasn’t getting enough breaks to be able to add to his goal total.

But like many young players, Larsson is learning he has a lot of work ahead of him every night if he wants to stay in the lineup at this level.

Johan says he realizes he has to be a player who "gets in the grill of opposition players." And furthermore "get in the grill of the other team’s best players." The 23 year old told me after a Monday morning practice, “I get into the game more when I am playing physical.”

What Larsson may be fighting a bit right now is finding the way to being that player who can be a pest, as well as be a player who contributes offensively.

Johan admits he wants to “be a creative player” and one who can “make plays.” So far those desires have yielded just one goal and three assists almost halfway through this, his third season in the Sabres organization and just over 100 games into his NHL career.

As Larsson looks to continue working toward being the player the Sabres want him to be, the young forward says he doesn’t have to look far when it comes to finding a player who sets a good example for him when it comes to the proper work ethic on and off the ice.

Johan told me he is constantly keeping his eye on how teammate Ryan O'Reilly handles himself at practice as well as how hard the Sabres alternate captain plays every single shift of every game.

It's just another example of what general manager Tim Murray likely knew as soon as he took over this Sabres team. You can have all the young potential on your team you want, but potential without leadership can go astray.

Outside the organization and while he was growing up, Larsson says his role model was and still is Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings. Again, a sign of a player looking to the right role model.

When Johan and I had our chat for this article, Sweden had just lost to rival Finland in the semifinals of the World Junior tournament in Helsinki.

Larsson says he “feels for the boys” after a loss at that point in the tournament. The Sabres forward was part of two WJCs. He finished fourth in 2011 in Buffalo and then captained the gold medal-winning team the next year in Calgary.

If he and his fellow countrymen were meant to win the championship anywhere but at home in front of the Swedish fans, Canada was the place to win because of Canada’s “love for hockey.” A love very much shared by Larsson and his fellow countrymen.

Larsson is quite aware of where the Sabres are in the standings lately, but feels the team is headed in the right direction. Johan says he feels the team is united and playing well, but “just have to find a way to close out games, and at least come away with a point” for their efforts.

When it comes to fan support in Buffalo, Larsson says he is not surprised with the level of support the team continues to see and hear from its fans, despite two very tough seasons to swallow before this one.

At the recent Sabres Bowl-A-Rama, Larsson was a fan favorite. A smile on his face throughout the afternoon benefiting the Sabres Foundation aimed at aiding local charities in and around Western New York.

Now if Larsson’s hard work and understanding of how to play consistently pays off with a few goals here shortly, as well as keeping the other team’s best players off the scoresheet, that smile may be seen more often on the highlight reel.

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