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Is an Adam Larsson Reunion a Good Idea for the Devils?

Adam Larsson, the Devils fourth-overall pick from 2011 and infamous Oilers trade return from 2016, could be an unrestricted free agent in a few months. Could the 28-year-old defensive defenseman be a free agent target for the team that drafted him with much fanfare a decade ago?

NHL: NOV 09 Oilers at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been five years since one of the most famous/infamous trades in recent history went down between the Devils and Oilers. Yes, we are now half a decade removed from the “one for one” Adam Larsson-Taylor Hall trade and it’s been an interesting and disappointing ride on both ends. Taylor Hall is no longer a member of the Devils, moving on after being traded to the Coyotes in the 2019-20 season. Larsson is still with the Oilers but he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and there has reportedly been no talk of an extension between sides at this point.

The trade, which remains objectively hilarious from a raw value standpoint, probably did not work out the way either team had hoped. Larsson was a serviceable piece but couldn’t hope to have the kind of impact necessary to justify moving a player of Hall’s caliber in his prime. For the Devils’ part, Hall won the first Hart Trophy in the team’s history and dragged them to the playoffs in 2018 for their only postseason appearance since 2012, but was also unable to usher in an end to the franchise’s broader doldrums and departed unceremoniously after an injury-plagued and disappointing final 12 months in red and black. The Devils do have something to show for his stay in the form of prospects Dawson Mercer and Kevin Bahl, who they hope are both part of a solution in New Jersey (as well as serviceable depth forward, Nick Merkley, for what it’s worth), but the Taylor Hall Era itself ended up being a flash in the pan.

As it happens, both of these players are likely to be available on the free agent market when it opens this summer. Hall, who has perhaps finally tired of being on crummy teams after a doomed-from-the-start attempt to help make the Buffalo Sabres relevant, seems like an extraordinarily unlikely reunion candidate. Larsson, meanwhile, seems like maybe less of a longshot. The Devils need defensive help on the right side, they have an ocean of cap space burning a hole in their pocket, and Larsson figures to be one of the better (and younger) RHD that will be available. Barring a big swing for Dougie Hamilton, Larsson probably makes as much sense as any free agent options on the right for New Jersey.

So what type of player is Adam Larsson in 2021? Well, he’s probably best defined as a middle-pairing defensive defenseman at this point in his career. The two-way impact that Larsson was touted for way back when he was drafted never really materialized, but he has morphed into a player you want on the ice when you would prefer that things do not happen. He’s not “trade him for a guy who’s about to win an MVP” good, but it seems that he can be a solid part of an NHL defense if you understand his limitations. Below, you can see his career 5v5 xG impacts which have fluctuated but settled into a profile of a full-on defensive defenseman over the years.

larsson career xG numbers
Adam Larsson career 5v5 xG impacts.

Larsson is leading Edmonton’s defense in relative xGA this year (per Natural Stat Trick) and his Evolving Hockey GAR/xGAR measures in 2021 is about as good as they been in his entire career (career GAR charts and 2017-20 player card below). He’s a one-dimensional player, sure, but he seems to be pretty good in that one dimension.

Larsson career GAR/WAR
Larsson career xGAR/xWAR
Larsson 2017-2020 player card

The Devils, for their part, have a lingering issue on the right side of their defense, which is the lack of any player who can realistically be described as a shutdown guy. Severson’s defensive impacts have improved over the years and he’s certainly better than he once was, but he is still airheaded enough at times that he remains a guy who you’re not aching to have out there to close out a game. Subban has seemingly started to adjust his approach a bit this season but he still leaves much to be desired in his own end. Based on early returns in the AHL, Reilly Walsh seems like he could be ready for the NHL in the not-too-distant future but certainly doesn’t profile as a shutdown-type. Surveying the landscape of options, Larsson could fit pretty well in a role the Devils don’t really have filled at the moment.

As long as you understand what Larsson is and what he isn’t at this point in his career, I think he can potentially deliver strong value to a team for the right price. Whether he has any interest in a return to New Jersey, I don’t know, but if he doesn’t end up extending with the Oilers, he seems like someone worth pursuing for the Devils. His one dimension is something badly needed for this team, particularly on the right side, and if he can be had on a relatively reasonable deal, he could end up being part of the solution in New Jersey — something that would be very surprising to someone in summer 2016 but perhaps obvious to someone in summer 2011. If the Devils ended up with the bag of goodies they got from the 2019 Hall trade AND Adam Larsson in the end, that wouldn’t be the worst outcome.