(Editor’s Note: Stats were obtained via Puckalytics)
It feels like we’ve asked this question on more than one occasion since his rookie season. The former 4th overall pick had struggled to find his role under former New Jersey Devils Coach Peter DeBoer and his coaching staff. The 2013-14 season and the beginning of the 2014-15 season were the lowest points in Larsson’s young career, as DeBoer made him a healthy scratch on a number of occasions and even sent him to Albany of the AHL for a short time.
To better understand Larsson’s performance, one needs to analyze two different time periods in his career: the 44 games he played for DeBoer from 2013 until his firing on December 26th, 2014, and the 46 games under the interim staff that took over for DeBoer.
In the 44 games between 2013-14 under DeBoer, Larsson’s numbers were not pretty. In those games, he totaled 2 goals and 5 assists for just 7 points. In a full 82 game season, that would’ve been good for just 13 points. Not good for someone who showed he had offensive upside during his rookie campaign.
While Larsson wasn’t creating much in the way of goals, he was at least preventing them. His goals against per 60 was 1.88. He was quite effective at shot suppression with 42.48 Corsi Against per 60 (CA/60) as well. While these numbers may seem great, it’s important to note he wasn’t seeing much time in the defensive zone.
A large part of Larsson’s lack of defensive zone time can be attributed to his pairing with Eric Gelinas. 35% of Larsson’s ice time came with him and the pair was often quite sheltered with a 24.6% zone start rate in the defensive zone (DFZO%). I believe most of this can be the result of Gelinas’ struggles in the defensive zone, and it’s not a complete indictment on Larsson’s play in his own end. When Larsson was away from Gelinas, he had a 38.7% DZFO%, as compared to Gelinas who saw a 22.3% DZFO% when away from Larsson. DeBoer did his part to keep Gelinas out of high danger situations on defense and it had an effect on Larsson getting time in his own end since the two were paired together quite often.
Things began to change for Larsson when DeBoer was fired, however. The new coaching staff, which included Devils legend Scott Stevens, made it a focal point to get Larsson more ice time. He immediately became a top pair defenseman with Andy Greene. In the 46 games Larsson played after DeBoer was fired, 84% of his ice time came with Greene. Their zone starts were relatively split between the neutral zone and defensive zone, with a 36.6% DZFO%, which is quite good.
Even though Larsson had a new role, he was getting more ice time with larger defensive responsibility, his CA/60 was still quite good (52.09) even though it did see a pretty good increase. If we compare Larsson’s shot suppression stats to two of his fellow draft mates, Jonas Brodin and Dougie Hamilton (from 12/26/14 onwards), his numbers were on par with those two defensemen. Brodin’s CA/60 was 54.58 while Hamilton’s was exactly identical to that of Larsson’s.
Now, I’m not saying Larsson is going to be the next Hamilton nor is he at Jonas Brodin’s level yet, but considering how bad the Devils were last season, it’s certainly encouraging to see Larsson putting up shot suppression numbers that are comparable to guys like Hamilton and Brodin.
As for Larsson’s offensive output, it isn’t anywhere near that of Hamilton, but his numbers in the second half of last season were certainly quite encouraging. Not only did he become more of a factor defensively, he also became a steady contributor offensively – at least more so than he had been in any time since his rookie season. Larsson averaged around 0.434 points per game under the new coaching staff, which is nothing outrageous. In an 82 game season, he would’ve finished with around 35 points at that pace, which would’ve been a career high for him.
It’s even more encouraging considering that Larsson barely saw any time on the powerplay; most of his points came at even strength. If he’s ever able to get solid powerplay time, I’d expect him to continue building on his point totals. Nobody is expecting him to be the next Erik Karlsson in terms of offensive production, but he certainly took a step in the right direction during the second half of last season.
If there was cause for concern for Larsson at the beginning of last season, it certainly was warranted. He was the 4th overall pick and considered to be the building block for the Devils defensive unit for the next decade or so, but his development had stagnated after his rookie season and slowly began to decline over the next couple of seasons.
The real turning point for Larsson seemed to be the firing of Peter DeBoer. I’m not trying to knock on DeBoer here, but he clearly did not trust Larsson in high danger defensive situations. Although some of Larsson’s play warranted that lack of trust, it falls on the coach to correct the mistakes in the player’s play on the ice and that wasn’t happening between the two of them.
For whatever reason, Larsson really picked up his play when Adam Oates and Scott Stevens took over behind the bench. I’m sure Stevens’ presence had a lot to do with Larsson’s emergence in the 2nd half of last season, and the rest of the staff seemed to have confidence in putting Larsson out there against opposing teams’ top lines.
Whether not having Stevens on the bench for the upcoming season will have an impact on Larsson remains to be seen, but based on his stats in the final 46 games of last year, there certainly is reason to be encouraged. Maybe 2015-16 is finally the year we get the breakout season from Adam Larsson that we’ve been hoping for, and it very well can be if Larsson retains his spot on the Devils’ top defensive pairing with Andy Greene and finds himself getting more time with the special teams. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic for Larsson still, he just needs to cease his opportunity this upcoming season.