In his first extended opportunity to show his abilities at the NHL level, the offensive-minded defenseman has flourished in the nine games with the Dallas Stars since his last recall from AHL Texas on Nov. 12, and seems to have gotten progressively better with each game. He’s chipped in with two assists, fired 10 shots on goal and has been reliable defensively, posting a +2 plus/minus rating.
After suiting up for two games with the Stars at the end of 2009-10 and six contests last year amidst a season honing his craft for current Stars coach Glen Gulutzan and assistant Paul Jerrard in the AHL, it was clear those times that Larsen’s presence in Dallas was just as a stopgap. This time, Larsen has fit right in at the NHL level and looks like he belongs for good.
“I feel really comfortable,” said Larsen, who totaled four goals and 22 points in 54 AHL contests last year and added two goals and five points in six playoff games. “And of course, when you get into it, like now I’ve been here a couple of games, you kind of get into the rhythm and of course you get more comfortable.”
“He’s been good. He’s got good skills, he’s a good skater, he’s smooth with the puck, he can pass it,” added blue line leader Stephane Robidas
. “We all knew his abilities with the puck and I think he’s been showing it since he came back from the American League and had a chance to play. He’s been very good.”
Larsen, who just turned 22 on Wednesday, has also received more ice time, averaging 17:23 per contest, and feeling relied upon by the coaching staff has helped fuel his own confidence. That in turn has led to what has probably been the biggest difference between his performance during this recent stretch and his previous appearances with the Stars: his willingness to rush the puck up ice when the opportunity presents itself and to actually shoot the puck.
“You got to choose when to and when not to,” Larsen said of joining in on the attack. “Of course, I want to be up there as much as I can, but in tight games you don’t need to go. Of course, if something opens up, you go, but when they play a really tight defense and we do, you don’t want to take chances. There’s games where you can go all the time, and then there’s games where you can’t go because it’s a tight game.”
“I think he’s been playing really well,” said Stars winger Loui Eriksson
, who has taken Larsen under his wing a bit, letting him stay at his house instead of a hotel. “He’s really skilled defenseman, so he has to use that a lot and I think he’s been handling himself really well out there. He’s getting a lot of shots through to the net and playing pretty physical, too, and that’s what they want from him, too, to see if he can stay tough and play like he should be here. He has to join in and use his speed. He’s a quick kid, a good defenseman. I think he’s been doing a really good job.”
Larsen was actually asked to direct more emphasis towards his offensive game when he was initially sent down to the AHL squad on Oct. 14 after playing the first three games in Dallas. That extra concentration on rushing the puck and creating more scoring opportunities paid off as Larsen accumulated one goal and 10 points in 10 games with Texas before getting the call to return to Dallas.
“Of course, I’m a defenseman, so defense comes first,” noted the 6-foot, 190-pound native of Esbjerg, Denmark, one of just a handful of NHLers from that country. “But they actually told me when I got sent down there after camp, they told me to start focusing on my offense, to get that going, because last year, (Jerrard) worked a lot with me defense-wise. I feel good defensively, I feel surprisingly good. Of course, it’s hard when you meet guys who are really big and strong, but I’ve got to use what I’m good at, like use my speed to pick the puck from them and try to hit them when they’re weak. I can’t outbattle a guy like (fellow defender Nicklas) Grossman can, you’ve got to be smart in some ways and I think I’ve been improving that defensive-wise a lot. You always hope you can get some ice time here in the show to show you should stay here, but you take it as it comes.”
Larsen has certainly improved in his ability to read when to go and when not to. Besides the impressive plus/minus, he has also blocked 15 shots and delivered 27 hits, which actually ranks him fourth among Stars defensemen, in 12 NHL games overall this season.
It’s pretty evident to most observers that Larsen is playing with much more poise and confidence, and that has been a large part of his success.
“I think it’s all about confidence,” Robidas said. “He’s playing more and by playing more you get confidence and you can do more things and obviously Gully knows him and Paulie knows him and that helps. He’s coming in and it’s not a new system, it’s a system that he knows and coaches that he knows and coaches that know what he can do. That’s a big advantage for a young guy. When you come into a situation where the coach knows you and they have confidence in your abilities, that makes a big difference. And as a player, when you’re confident, that’s when you can play to your full potential. When you’re not confident, it’s harder to come in and do your thing. I think that’s been a big part. Confidence is everything in the game.”
“He’s a great hockey player, every game he’s getting more and more confidence on the ice,” added rookie winger Tomas Vincour
, who spent most of last season as Larsen’s teammate in the AHL and has become close friends with him. “He’s a great skater, he shoots the puck well, and he sees the ice really well, too, so that’s a great combination for him. And you can tell, he’s still looking for his first goal, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to come soon, because he’s getting some great chances.”
With the return of defensemen Alex Goligoski
and Trevor Daley
from the injury list Thursday, there has been some question as to whether or not Larsen will remain with the NHL squad, but with the way he’s performed lately, Gulutzan indicated it would be very difficult to send him back to their AHL affiliate based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park.
The recent three-game suspension of Larsen’s defense partner Mark Fistric
keeps a spot in the lineup open for him, but after Fistric is eligible to return on Thursday against the Islanders, there will be eight NHL blueliners on the roster.
“It’s all going to depend, but right now, he’s played very well for us and he deserves a chance to keep going,” said Gulutzan, who coached Larsen last season in Cedar Park. “We’d have eight (defensemen) here, but there’s still decisions to be made when everyone gets healthy. We’ll see how that goes.”
The last two contests, Larsen has been paired with Goligoski, who plays a similarly silky-smooth game and has perhaps elevated his defensive performance, delivering four hits and blocking five shots in those outings.
Before that, Larsen formed some impressive chemistry with the rugged Fistric on the blue line, as the two formed a bit of an ‘odd couple’ on the back end, but they have proven to be very effective.
Fisty’s been helping me and we’ve been playing really well together,” said Larsen, who was the Stars’ fifth-round selection (149th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. “He’s a big guy and takes away a lot of room down low in the defensive zone, he’s trying to make it easier for me, I think. We talk good on the ice. He’s really big so he can hit some bodies out there, and you need that sometimes.”
“I think we complement each other quite well, kind of ‘opposites attract’ maybe,” acknowledged the 6-foot-2, 233-pound Fistric, a bruising hitter. “I think in our game, we complement each other really well. He’s a good, puck-moving, playmaking guy, and I’m kind of a steady Eddie, make a good first pass and play well defensively.”
Larsen must be picking up some pointers from his old partner, because in the past two games without him, he’s delivered five hits.
Overall, it’s pretty clear that Larsen has made a lasting impression since he re-joined the club. One has a hard time imagining that the Stars might return him to the AHL shortly.
“He’s a great player. He brings energy every night, he plays his best every night, so it’s really nice to see him doing real well,” added Vincour. “He and I are really tight on and off the ice. Everything he does is right, everyone on the team has got a lot of children, so we’re the same, me and Larsen, because we’re still really young. I think he’s on the right track to becoming a great NHL defenseman.”