With Adam Larsson being scratched eight of the Devils' first nine games of this season, people are starting to grow impatient with the development of the Devils' former 4th overall pick. With him seemingly being passed by by his peers within the Devils orgainization (at least in the eyes of the coaching staff), it's fair for people to wonder where exactly he fits anymore. With him entering his 4th NHL season, there are growing murmurs throughout the team's fanbase that Larsson is the dreaded "b"-word (bust). I'm not ready to go down that road, but I understand people's frustration, considering Larsson was drafted to be an impact guy for this team. I think it's important to step back and get some perspective, though.
Despite this being his 4th season, Larsson is just 21 years of age (he'll turn 22 in November). As of today, Larsson is a day younger than Eric Gelinas was when he made his NHL debut in a meaningless game at the end of the 2012-13 season. He's about 4 months older than Jon Merrill was when he got his first taste of the league. He remains the youngest player on the roster besides Damon Severson (and, for the moment, Reid Boucher). I don't suspect Larsson will be competing for Norris Trophies, at least not any time soon, but that doesn't mean we should be ready to give up on him as a solid defenseman in this league and a player who should be a part of this team's long-term plans.
It's hard to give a really good evaluation of Larsson's current status as a player right now, because he really hasn't seen a whole lot of NHL ice time over the course of the last season-plus. He has been afforded one stretch of starts that has cracked 10 consecutive games since March of the 2012-13 season. For a player who doesn't seem like he will ever put up gaudy point totals, it's tough to make such a case when you are going to be pulled from the lineup if you don't make a splash. His last extended stretch of consecutive starts was in October/November of last season, when he was alongside Gelinas and playing perhaps the best NHL hockey he had to date. Unfortunately, that stretch came to an end when Larsson went down with an injury around Thanksgiving. After recovering, he'd be buried in the minors by a crowded blue line for the rest of the season.
The thing is, Larsson's underlying numbers from last season are pretty good, overall. He had one of the highest relative shot attempt differentials on the team (his FenwickRel% was best among defensemen, per WAR On Ice). Now, he was sheltered to an extent, seeing high OZ starts and not the toughest competition overall, but the numbers definitely aren't indicating "bust" to me. When he and Gelinas were together last season, they were sheltered, but they were dominating in attempts, nonetheless, grabbing a 61% share. Gelinas' posession numbers have sank like a stone since then, despite continuing to see soft comp, so it seems difficult to say the numbers were great only because of deployment. Larsson was playing strong hockey alongside Gelinas before his injury, and the fact of the matter is that he has not seen more than 3 straight NHL starts since then.
Now, there are flaws to Larsson's game, to be sure. He isn't particularly quick on his skates and he has issues at times with being too tentative or hesitant in his decision-making. When he was put on the first pairing with Andy Greene at the start of last season, he had difficulties handling top competition. He won't have the kind of exhilarating offensive impact that a guy like Damon Severson (or even Eric Gelinas) has shown. His game is probably somewhere between "defensive defenseman" and "two-way puck-mover." He isn't going to light you up with flashy plays, but there is a certain fluidity to his game when he is playing well and the fact that he won't necessarily wow you with individual efforts doesn't mean we should be ignoring the story some of the numbers seem to be telling. Namely, that he actually took a pretty good step forward last season, even though it was a truncated one for him.
Getting a Fair Shake?
The Devils, with the emergence of Damon Severson, are now in the enviable position of having more young defensemen than they have room for. Within this group, which includes Severson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Adam Larsson, Larsson has seemingly been passed by on the depth chart by his peers. The question now is whether the coaching staff is correct in their assessment with this hierarchy they seem to have established. Larsson has been left out of the lineup for eight of the first nine games of the season, despite two of his young teammates, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas, getting buried at even strength early on. When Larsson was returned to the scratch suite immediately after a mediocre effort, coach Pete DeBoer didn't mince words, stating plainly that he wanted to put the "best lineup on the ice we can to win." It seems pretty clear DeBoer thinks Larsson is the 7th best D on the team right now, but is it that clear cut?
Without getting into the whole Bryce Salvador argument, there are two players that you can argue should be sat down for a little bit to give Larsson an opportunity, and they are Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill. Damon Severson has been good enough on the top pairing that I do think he has played his way out of the conversation for the time being, but between Larsson, Merrill, and Gelinas, I'm far from convinced Larsson should definitely be the odd-man out.
Looking at Gelinas, it has been pretty clear that he has his struggles at even strength in general. In the second half last season, he played his way out of the lineup and has yet to really find his game again at even strength since his hot start in 2013-14. He remains an offensive weapon with his shot, and can be an impact player on the power play, but he has struggled enough at even strength at times to throw into question whether he is a net positive for the team. I don't think too many would raise an eyebrow if Gelinas took a seat at some point, but with his booming shot, you can see why the team might want to keep him in. Still, are his 4 points so far this season enough to say there's no way Larsson should be seeing time over him?
That brings us to Jon Merrill, who played his way into the good graces of the coaching staff early last season and hasn't been questioned much since. Merrill, despite being one of the few waiver-exempt Devils, never appeared to be in any danger of not making the opening night roster. Merrill is a strong player when he is on, he is confident with the puck and can chip in on offense occaisionally too, but I have a healthy dose of skepticism when he is considered head-and-shoulders above his peers by the coaching staff. He and Gelinas, despite soft zone start and competition numbers, have been steamrolled big time at evens this season, rolling with a Buffalo Sabres-ian 39% of the shot attempts while they are on the ice. Merrill's numbers have been uglier than Gelinas' this season, and if we accept that Merrill is the lesser offensive player, it doesn't seem unfair to question if his spot in the lineup is safe.
Again, I'm not trying to say the Larsson is, without doubt, a better option at this point, but if the guys in front of him are providing this type of effort and he's still not getting in, then when do the Devils plan on playing him? Merrill has been posited as a better version of Larsson a fair amount around here, but when he's putting up a 39% CF alongside the same partner that Larsson put up a 61% CF with last season, shouldn't we step back and at least re-evaluate how we got to that point. There are nuances that go far deeper than just looking at a Corsi number, but Larsson looked good, if not quite ready for the top pairing, the last time he was afforded significant time in an NHL lineup. I just think people should consider that before they try to claim that he is a bust.
Could He Be Moved?
This is the million dollar question, I suppose. If the team doesn't think Larsson fits into their plans going forward, should they be shopping him? I don't purport to have any insider knowledge of the situation, and will choose not to link to HF Boards proposals like certain others, but you can see why people ask the question. Larsson still has that high first-round pick pedigree, and in the NHL, it often takes time to for that to dissipate (see: Johnson, Jack), and if the Devils believe he has sunk behind others on the depth chart, why not include him in a package for a young forward or forward prospects, something which the team has a dearth of?
Despite that reasoning, which I understand, I would have to say I'd be surprised if Larsson was traded any time in the near future. This team is familiar with injury issues and, the minute someone goes down, there is a good chance Larsson will be called upon to play significant minutes for New Jersey. I also have doubts about how much value Larsson has on the market right now. Yes, there are plenty of teams around the league who are struggling to plug holes on D and the young Swede has about as cap-friendly a contract as there is, but with him being in the minors for half of last season and spending most of October in the scratch suite, are teams really going to be giving up a worthwhile package to get him? That seems doubtful, at least to me.
So for now, things will remain in limbo for Adam Larsson, and perhaps the next time he is called upon will be the time he sticks in the lineup. I don't know that he is better than the young players who have passed him on the depth chart, but I have reservations about keeping him buried in the press box when those in front of him seem to be faltering. This was supposed to be "show-me" season for Larsson with the one-year deal he signed over the summer, but it's hard to show much of anything when you're in the press box every night.