What a difference a few weeks make. About four weeks ago, Adam Larsson played his first NHL game this season, played 12:30, didn't really do much good or bad, and that would be it for another week. It wasn't a good spot for the fourth season in Larsson's NHL career. Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas all jumped him on the depth chart from the start of the season. In his brief opportunity, he looked like the same player we've seen for three seasons. He takes his time, he tends to have tunnel-vision, his skating isn't all that good, he's prone to taking hits, and so forth. It didn't look so good. Mike wrote about his situation then.
Weeks later, Larsson looks far better. Part of it is due to necessity. Bryce Salvador and Merrill have been out injured. By default, Larsson was put back into the lineup and has played the last nine games. However, he has been playing more significant minutes. In five out of those nine games, Larsson's played at least 17 minutes. He's been featured on the penalty kill as of late. It's important to note that in the other four games, he was held to just over 15 minutes in the first two of his return to the lineup and less than 13 in two of those four road trip games. So his inclusion of the lineup did not guarantee him more ice time. It was his play that earned him those minutes.
Larsson's underlying stats belie his improved play. Per War on Ice, here's a bubble chart for the Devils defensemen. The axes are competition by way of time on ice percentage and offensive zone start percentage, with the bubble representing his relative Corsi percentage.
Larsson is in an odd spot. He's been getting unfavorable zone starts and yet has not been facing tough competition relative to ice time. He's not been facing a lot of first or even second line competition regularly. In terms of Corsi and Fenwick percentages, Larsson's not facing the weakest players. Nevertheless, the relative Corsi percentage is worth noting. Larsson hasn't been getting favorable zone starts, still not facing great players most of the time, and keeping the play going forward. Specifically, Larsson is at 3.19% which is second only to Eric Gelinas - who's been getting very favorable zone starts and only a bit stronger competition than Larsson. Overall, Larsson has been doing well in the situations he has been used in. A far contrast to Salvador and Merrill, even if they faced better players.
It's worth noting who Larsson has mostly been playing with. For the first six games, Larsson has been getting minutes with Gelinas and Merrill. Per the base counts at Natural Stat Trick, they've come out ahead in possession at even strength. Those attempts against didn't turn into many shots against. Had Gelinas been able to handle a routine pass, those pairings would have not conceded any goals against at even strength. More recently, Larsson has been starting games with a called up rookie, Seth Helgeson. The unit has been appropriately sheltered, but they've been solid. They weren't getting picked by the opposition repeatedly. It's a compliment for the rookie, but also for Larsson. He's shown that he could have a rookie or a sometimes-suspect Merrill (this season) or Gelinas (both seasons) and not get overwhelmed. And that's helped him get more ice time. Overall, Larsson's got the best Corsi For percentage per War on Ice and the lowest shots against per 60 rate by far among the defensemen. Clearly, he's been doing quite well even against limited competition.
It's not just the underlying numbers that have shown signs of a better tomorrow. Larsson has been a bit more productive. He only has the one goal and assist. However, he's been averaging at least a shot on net per game for the first time since his rookie season with fourteen shots in ten games. He's only been held shotless in one game. Larsson isn't likely going to be an offensive force, but he's not just a warm body at the point whose job is to pass the puck to a better shooter either.
The good stats aren't just the result of Larsson being on the ice. It's been the result of Larsson reacting far better on the ice. From my eyes, Larsson has been able to get any clearances through beyond the blueline without much trouble. He's not hesitating on the puck at either end of the rink; he's been on the right side of the fine line between judicious and waiting too long. If his clearance or shooting attempt does get stopped, he's not panicking; he's been able to get into good positions in response. One could count on one hand the number of times he's been in a bad position over the past few games. He's not getting hit constantly and he's not getting caught flat-footed. While he wasn't positive in possession in the Minnesota or Washington games, he was very good in his own end of the rink - especially in the Washington game. Despite facing 15-16 attempts against at even, only seven shots in each game actually got to Schneider - and all of them stopped. Larsson has been playing well defensively, he's not just "there," and has been more effective in his own end of the rink.
That's all why he's got very good underlying numbers and why he's been getting more minutes. It's not a case of Peter DeBoer finally giving him a chance and the player gaining some kind of buzzword like confidence. It's a case of Larsson recognizing an opportunity and doing his job well enough to be rewarded with more playing time. Not just at even strength, but also on the penalty kill. There are two big caveats in the way of proclaiming that Larsson has finally emerged. The first is that it's only been for a handful of games. This could be the beginning, I think it is the beginning, and I hope it is if only because the team needs its younger defensemen to play well. Larsson has had three seasons under his belt so I'm inclined to think (hope?) that this may actually be improvement more than just a few good games. The second is that, again, Larsson hasn't been facing tough competition regularly. I think that's the next step, though. Provided he can maintain the level of play that he has done in recent games; I think he will be given bigger assignments in time.
What do you make of Larsson's play as of late? Has he really turned the corner in recent games? Would you say he's earned his spot for now or is it still too early to say? What would you like to see from #5 going forward? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the beginning of Larsson's emergence on the blueline in the comments. Thank you for reading.