Adam Larsson has played a lot of minutes in the NHL - enough of a reason to keep him around for the whole season. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
When one regularly writes or speaks, arguments, opinions, conclusions and points are made and expressed based on the information one has at hand. In many cases, as events would have it, those same arguments, opinions, conclusions, and points can turn out to be dead wrong. Today, I'd like to say that I was wrong about Adam Larsson.
I absolutely loved that the Devils were able to draft him fourth overall in the 2011 Entry Draft. I loved what he has done as a prospect and what he could be. Yet, I was stressing bringing him along slowly even on the draft night. In a summary of reactions to Larsson getting picked, I made my point clear: he needs to develop and he should do that in the Elitserien in Sweden. I was far more explicit with this post in July, where I explained why Larsson should be with Skellefteå AIK in 2011-12 instead of Albany or New Jersey. I felt they were sensible points - at the time.
However, as the season approached, those arguments fell by the wayside. I'll summarize what went on, and then explain why I've learned to accept that Adam Larsson will probably be in New Jersey for the rest of the season.
One of the major arguments I had against Larsson playing in the NHL right away would be his potential cap hit. Fourth overall picks don't get maximum potential value on an entry level contract, but $2 - 2.5 million isn't an insignificant cap hit. It didn't make sense to me to expect an 18 year old defenseman to not only jump to the highest possible level in hockey but to be worth his cap hit right away. The Devils weren't exactly loaded with cap space either.
On July 15, Adam Larsson signed his ELC and surprised pretty much everyone. It had no bonuses. He would only cost $975,000 to the team's salary cap for his first three seasons. That would have more easily fit in the team's salary cap. In retrospect, that alone should have been a sign of Larsson sticking in North America. Why would any prospect give up potential money that their predecessors and peers would get in their ELCs unless they were given something else? This quote from Lou Lamoriello, reported by Tom Gulitti, was an even clearer sign:
Lamoriello said the plan is is for Larsson to play in North America—either in the NHL or the AHL—in 2011-12.
"If that’s the best thing for his development," Lamoriello said. "If we thought that something else was, then we’d do that, but it is our inention and it’s his intention to be in North America."
As for the team's cap space, they became less of an issue after some buy outs later in the summer. But what about the competition factor? The Devils went into training camp with a ton of defensemen on their roster, so it's not like Larsson was guaranteed a spot on the roster. Plus, history wasn't on his side. There haven't been many defenseman who have made their NHL debut before they turned 20, much less go out and stick around for the whole season and do relatively well. This post by George Ays at Blueshirt Banter highlights some of the more recent defensemen from ages 18 through 22 and notes that they're all over the place when it comes to competition and possession. Essentially, it's a real wild card as to how a young defender will do in the NHL.
As training camp and preseason went on, Larsson got minutes and impressed the coaches enough to get a roster spot over more experienced defensemen. I can't speak to how well he did in camp, but he was a constant sight in preseason, smoothly racking up big minutes. It wasn't just to get a long look at him in camp. It continued into the regular season.
In order to get a better grasp on how he has done so far, I first rounded up Larsson's on-ice chances for and against from C.J.'s reports and the Corsi & Fenwick numbers at Time on Ice in his first seven games (again, this is written before Thursday's game at Phoenix).
|EV TOI||EV CF||EV CA||Corsi||Fenwick|
The last three games weren't good at all for his Corsi or Fenwick values; but they're defensible to a point. San Jose shot the lights out against the Devils in Game 5; Pittsburgh attempted the lights out in Game 6; and Los Angeles upped their aggression on offense (to little avail) after the Devils went up 3-0. It's still early enough in the season for one or two really good or really bad games to skew the totals. I feel the scoring chances are a little more representative of how he's done so far. Outside of that game in Nashville, Larsson hasn't been demolished in terms of scoring chances. It suggests to me that opponents aren't getting into that dangerous part of the ice on offense regardless of whether they're out-attempting him or not.
On the other hand, it's not all glitter and gold for New Jersey's #5. According to Behind the Net, the opposition has found more success at even strength in terms of shots per 60 minutes with him on the ice instead of off the ice. Also from Behind the Net, it's clear that Peter DeBoer has been trying to protect him. Larsson's QUALCOMP value is high, but the relative Corsi of his opponents (Corsi Rel QoC) is the lowest on the team. He's not going out there against the toughest competition. Plus, his offensive zone start percentage is the highest among defensemen on the team at 61.7%. He's usually not starting in the toughest part of the rink. On top of all of that, Larsson has been kept away from penalty killing duties, racking up his minutes on the power play and even strength. This is sensible since Larsson is a rookie and he's still developing. I don't think anyone really should be surprised that he's not carrying the play and being a stud in both ends right away.
Still, Larsson's situation with the Devils is far different from, say, Sean Couturier with Philadelphia. Larsson isn't getting limited minutes and only the choicest situations. Sure, DeBoer's not starting him in the team's own end all that much and he's not giving them the toughest assignments. But one can't be fully sheltered if they're leading the entire blueline in even strength minutes per game (19:34/game) and total minutes per game (23:52/game) even if DeBoer is some magical wizard. Moreover, nobody gets that much playing time if they're not doing all that well. Especially on a team that boasts a few veterans who could carry workload if necessary like Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, and Anton Volchenkov. The minutes Larsson has played in his first 7 games is essentially carried over from preseason. While it's early in the season, he's already faced multiple teams in varying situations. It's not just Larsson getting experience, it's Larsson retaining the trust the coaches have placed in him so far.
At the end of training camp, I made a sly comment about how I only wanted to see him for 9 games, of which I was criticized. Well, they had a point. With the ninth game is coming up (again: this was written before the eighth game was played), I'm now expecting him to remain in New Jersey for that tenth game and beyond.
I will say that I'm not a fan of burning an entry level contract in general. It's still bad business for the team to put themselves in a position to pay the man sooner then they really have to. I don't want a situation where Larsson will command big money at age 21 partially based on potential not yet realized, and then hope he actually hits it. Should he shine by then, fine, but that's a lot to hope for. Plus, who knows what the cap situation will look like in 2014. Sure, it's open now, but there's going to plenty of action before then. Lou and management will have to keep Larsson's future in the back of their minds as they assemble their roster for the next two seasons.
One mitigating factor is that the Devils have only done this once to an 18-year old (twice if you want to include Jacob Josefson, who got one season burnt). It's not like the Devils are throwing youth onto the ice and hoping they stick. The more important mitigating factor is that Larsson is already a NHL defenseman. He's got a lot to learn, but he's not getting totally dominated and he's not just hanging on the fringes of the roster. Therefore, I am fully prepared to be wrong when Larsson steps onto the ice on November 3 against Toronto. The events have the past few months have proven me wrong. Consider the crow to be eaten.
What's your take on Adam Larsson's season so far? Are you fine with his ELC being burnt this season? If not, what does he have to do to justify the move? How do you think he'll develop based on what you've seen so far? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on Larsson after the jump.