Why Adam Larsson Should Play in Skellefteå AIK in 2011-12

He may look good in a New Jersey Devils jersey, but I think he should suit up with a Skellefteå jersey for 2011-12. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

There's not a whole lot of news in the realm of the New Jersey Devils today. Sure, Tom Gulitti reported that arbitration hearings have been scheduled for Zach Parise (August 3) and Mark Fraser (August 4); but all that represents are deadlines for a contract to be agreed upon.    Instead, I want to discuss something else from that same post at Fire & Ice.  the Devils' first round pick from the 2011 NHL Entry Draft: Adam Larsson

Lou and his agent are current;y in talks about a potential contract, which would be an entry level contract.  Larsson will attend the team's development camp next week regardless.   I'm sure some of you may be thinking why he hasn't been signed yet.  It's likely because #2 (Gabriel Landeskog) and #3 (Jonathan Huberdeau) haven't signed an ELC with their teams yet. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins got the maximum allowed contract from Edmonton; but he went #1.  What Larsson and his agent would be interested in will be driven by how much the players selected just before him (and possibly afterward, if any other guys signs an ELC).

How much Larsson gets, be it $3 million or less, is immaterial (for now) in my eyes.  The Devils don't have to sign Larsson, as they hold his rights for the next two seasons plus Larsson still has a season left on his contract with Skellefteå AIK.  Since they're talking already, I'd be surprised if no ELC comes out of current negotiations.  Regardless, if it were up to me, I would have Larsson go back and play with Skellefteå for the 2011-12 season anyway.  I have several reasons for this, explained after the jump.

What Larsson Has Done at the SEL Level for Skellefteå

One of the biggest reasons I was big on Adam Larsson getting drafted was that he was playing significant minutes against men in the SEL at what is seemingly a difficult position for inexperienced players.  The SEL website stores time on ice per game information and I think you'll be quite pleased to see what how much he has played in the last two seasons (Elitserien) and playoffs (Slutspel):

GP TOI/G
2009-10 Season 49 17:35
2009-10 Playoffs 11 16:42
2010-11 Season 37 18:44
2010-11 Playoffs 17 22:45

 

Wow.  Repeat: wow.  I'm especially impressed that the Skellefteå coaches gave him 20+ minutes per game in the playoffs.  Mind you, Skellefteå's went all the way to the finals; so that is some significant experience for such a young player.  However, this doesn't give a lot of insight to how he performed defensively.  As far as I know, there's no Behind the Net equivalent for the SEL.  I think it's a safe assumption to think that one can't be that poor in their own end and be given this many minutes per game. It's still an assumption, though.

What is clear is that the offensive production leaves something to be desired.  Larsson didn't pile up the points like his teammate David Rundblad (50 points in 55 games!) or even like Tim Erixon (5 G, 14 A).   Using the NHL equivalency estimate factor that Gabe Desjardens has at Behind the Net (0.78 for the SEL), here are his points from the Elitserien projected over an 82-game NHL season.

GP SEL G SEL A NHLE G NHLE A
2009-10 Season 49 4 13 5.221 16.969
2010-11 Season 37 1 8 1.305 10.442

 

Surely, Larsson can (and should) do better in the future, but this is where he stands right now.  It's not all that great. Larsson would have to play some excellent defense with such low production to justify playing in the NHL right away.  Skellefteå didn't need Larsson to produce a significant amount, since Rundblad, Erixon, and Frederik Lindgren were carrying the load. Still, it's something for him to work on in addition of just getting more playing time.

Fortunately, the situation at Skellefteå's blueline is now prime for Larsson to have the chance to hone his offensive game.  Rundblad and Erixion are not expected to return to Skellefteå for 2011-12, opening up the chance for Larsson to replace Rundblad on Skellefteå's first pairing and presumably more power play time as well.   Larsson will have to earn it, but if the coaches had no problem giving him 17-18 minutes a night as an 18-year old, then they won't have a problem for 2011-12 should Larsson prove worthy of a larger role.

That is an very good situation for a prospect in their development from my standpoint.  Especially in Larsson's case because it's not all that great over in North America.

The Defensemen Glut

Since Adam Larsson is from Europe, the Devils have several options as to where he can play in 2011-12.  He could play either with New Jersey or with the Albany Devils, their AHL affiliate.  Should the Devils organization want him over here as soon as possible, where he will play will be a difficult question.

According to CapGeek, the New Jersey Devils have 6 defensemen signed for this next season; and their AHL affiliate in Albany has 7 (including Jay Leach).  The organization has qualified another 3 defensemen, and with Mark Fraser filing for arbitration, you can expect him to get a contract either before the hearing or as a result from the hearing.  That's a lot of defensemen to have in the pro ranks, enough to make me think there has to be a trade or some other transactions to clear off a few players.  This alone will make it very difficult for Adam Larsson to break through on either side and get serious minutes.

It may be more feasible to stick him in Albany.  However, someone's going to be on the outside looking in.   Those who have followed Albany (e.g. Tom) can feel free to correct me, but it's my understanding that Alexander Urbom has been and should be the top defender on a young blueline next season.  The Devils acquired AHL all-star Maxim Noreau, so I would think he'll get serious minutes in this coming season.  I'd also like to think the Devils would want Eric Gelinas, Brandon Burlon, and Joe Sova to get a decent amount of minutes in their first full AHL season. While they are new to the professional level, their development in this first season is important to monitor.   Don't forget about Harry Young and Dan Kelly. While they may not have NHL upside, they do have a season of AHL hockey underneath their belts. Since the blueline doesn't have a lot of professional experience, those with just a little bit can use that as an advantage. Even without Young and Kelly or noting Jay Leach's likely presence in Albany, that's 5 defensemen.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying these defenders are all better prospects than Larsson or will block him out for good.  It's just that they are established and the organization has interest in seeing them play regularly too.  Larsson can probably outclass a few of these players now and earn a spot in Albany  Certainly, acclimating him to the North American game is good for his future development.  Competing for a roster spot has it's pluses too.  I'm not sure whether that's better than the possibility of a first pairing spot in the SEL and more power play time.   Still, it's a lot more likely that he breaks into Albany in 2011-12 than he does in New Jersey.

Sure, we may say that Larsson could do well at the NHL right away, but what spot is available for him to take?  Say what you want about them, but Larsson's not better than Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Colin White, or Andy Greene.  Maybe one day in the future, but not now.  Is he truly better than Mark Fayne?  Again, maybe one day - but I'm doubtful given that Fayne's older, developed, and proven himself in the NHL last season very well.  That leaves one spot open - assuming Bryce Salvador's unavailable.  Larsson would be in the middle of a fierce fight in training camp for one regular spot on the blueline, competing against non-rookie defensemen who have been in the NHL for a little bit and would rather stay there than go back to the AHL.  

Even if Larsson gets the #6 spot, is that really good for him?  Sure, practicing with NHL players can help; and even getting limited and protected minutes will help him break into the NHL slowly without throwing him into the fire.  However, should he prove to do well on the third pairing, it's going to be difficult to move him up the roster.  If he doesn't do well, then scratching him or having him suffer regularly could actually harm his development.  Especially when there are better alternatives like fighting for a spot Albany or possibly playing on the top pairing for Skellefteå.

Then there are the business-related problems of playing Larsson in the NHL right away.

The Perils of Burning Adam Larsson's ELC Now

Should Adam Larsson sign an ELC this summer, it'll be for 3 years and for a significant cap hit.  As I've mentioned in the past, recent fourth overall picks have averaged a cap hit of just under $2.4 million.  It may be higher for Larsson since he was the first defenseman in the draft, he has some leverage for this year with his current Skellefteå contract, and those ahead of him may get significant deals.   So I could see Larsson get an ELC of about $3 million.

One of the key advantages of an ELC is that the ELC can slide for up to two years. Provided the player doesn't play more than 9 NHL games in a season, their contract can slide to the next one with no cost to the team's cap.  So an 18 or 19 year old prospect can sign an ELC, continue playing where he was drafted, and his ELC will not start until his next season.  A contract can only slide twice at most, and only if the player was 18 when he signed it; so once the prospect turns 20, then the contract begins. The cap hit only comes into play if they're in the NHL, but the clock starts going then.    

Should the Devils decide that they can fit Adam Larsson somewhere on their crowded blueline somehow and want to use him for the whole season, then the contract will begin immediately.  If he just plays more than 9 NHL games in 2011-12, then his contract would begin.  This means he'll become a restricted free agent much earlier at age 21 (ELCs are 3 years long for players aged 18-21, so this would be in 2013-14 in this case), and an unrestricted free agent at age 25. In general, this is a bad business practice because it forces the club to pay the player earlier than necessary - especially to keep him from the open market just as he enters the prime of his career.  While we would want him to do as well as possible, the business side may compel us to hope he doesn't do too well so he requires another big contract on top of the ones the Devils will be carrying in 2013-14 (Kovalchuk, Parise's eventual deal, Volchenkov, anyone else's).

In my opinion, the only time a club shouldn't worry about burning an ELC is if they are confident that the player is especially good right away and figures that they'll be paying him a ton of money regardless of when he becomes a free agent.  I'm talking about generational talents, like Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.  We have reason to be hopeful for Larsson's future, but he's not like those guys at all.

As for most other prospects, it's cheaper to let them develop first before throwing them into the NHL. This is especially true for top draft picks because their ELCs are that much more expensive than other prospects. It's bonus-laden, but it all counts on the cap.  Therefore, either the prospect needs to justify that cap hit right away or the team is willing to risk early free agency and doesn't mind that the prospect can't justify their ELC immediately.  The latter are usually teams that are bad and wants to throw their young players into the toughest league in the world right away and have tons of cap space.   The Devils aren't that type of team, and they've usually been patient with their prospects (e.g. Tedenby, Zajac, Parise, Urbom, Josefson - except they burned his ELC last season).

More importantly, Adam Larsson isn't a $3 million player. Or a $2.4 million player.  I doubt he's even a seven-figure player at all right now.   Yes, he's been playing with and against men in Sweden for the last two seasons. Yes, he's played a significant amount of minutes with Skellefteå in those two seasons. Yes, he has all of this talent, maturity, and other wonderful traits that make him such a great prospect.  I don't doubt that he could hang in the NHL - assuming things go well for him at the prospect development camp and the more important training camp.  But he hasn't produced well at the SEL level yet, so there's little reason to believe it'll get better right away in North America.  While he's played against developed players in the SEL, they aren't as difficult to play against like a NHL player.  To use a comparison, there's little reason to believe he's as good as Andy Greene or Colin White right now.  We hope he will better than both, he has the potential to be better than both; but that's just potential and hope.  Both mean little for immediate usage.  If Larsson can't prove his worth, then there's no reason for New Jersey to pay it out now unless they want to waste money now and pay him earlier than expected.

Of course, the Devils may not be able to add him now.  We mustn't forget that the Devils have very little cap space available.   The Devils still have to re-sign their other RFAs, including a significant deal for Zach Parise.  Adding Larsson and his big ELC would just be a massive headache unless Lou does some big moves to clear up a lot of cap space for 2011-12.   

Considering this as well along with the issue of proving his value, it's a smarter move to let Larsson play in Albany if he must be in North America or just let him play in Skellefteå for 2011-12.

A Conclusion

I can sympathize with Larsson's desire to play in the NHL and the Devils fans who want to see him become a great player right away.   However, I feel it's in the best interest for Larsson to play out his contract in Skellefteå for this coming season - just like his teammate David Rundblad did after signing an ELC with St. Louis in 2010 (since traded to Ottawa).   I don't think it's sensible or even feasible at this point to have Larsson to play in New Jersey for this coming season.  I don't think it's better for Larsson to join an already crowded blueline in Albany and constantly compete for his position. 

The best situation for him is in Skellefteå.   Larsson has a realistic chance to be one of their top defensemen, where he'll get even more ice time, more opportunities for offense, more opportunities to play against the SEL's best, and more time on the power play in absence of Rundblad and Erixon. That possibility doesn't come around too often, especially for a young player. It's a type of experience that should do nothing but help him as a player.

I believe that Larsson will make a fine NHL player some day. He'll be at development camp and likely at training camp, where he'll get a close look. That's fine; but I just don't think now is the time to throw him into the NHL.   Rather than requiring him to meet the massive task of justifying a significant cap hit on a crowded blueline of a cap-strapped team right away, let him try to be a top guy in the SEL first.  Should he improve his offense and get more experience as a big minute defender with Skellefteå, then, by all means, bring him to North America.   By this time next year, the Devils should have more openings on defense either in Albany or New Jersey, more flexibility for the cap, and they will only have to worry about burning one year at most - which is more palatable than burning two years on the contract that Lou's currently negotiating with Larsson.

That's my stance on what the Devils should do with Larsson for this coming season.  What do you think? Do you prefer that Larsson stays with Skellefteå for another season like I do?  Do you disagree and think that Larsson should play in New Jersey or Albany? If so, then why?  Do you have some other option for Larsson for 2010-11? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Adam Larsson in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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