Has Adam Larsson Really Improved as a Defenseman?

Adam Larsson, seen here out of position and beaten by Michael Grabner and his crazy speed. - Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Larsson was a high draft pick and a defenseman than fans want to see play. However, as he's scratched for tonight's game, I ask a difficult question: has he really improved in the 108 games he's played with the New Jersey Devils?

Adam Larsson was a highly touted draft pick back in 2011.  After a horrible season, the New Jersey Devils won the draft lottery to move up to the fourth overall pick.  The fans absolutely loved it when the order of prospects went Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landskog, and Jonathan Huberdeau and the Devils drafted Larsson.  He was to be their future on defense.  A do-it-all defender that was getting it done at a professional level in Sweden at such a young age.  He's big, good on the puck, and good off the puck.  Against what I initially wanted, the Devils brought him immediately to the NHL in the 2011-12 season and kept him for the first full season.

However, Larsson has not yet become the top defensenman fans were hoping for back in June 2011.  Larsson hasn't always remained in the lineup since his inclusion.  In 2011-12, he got injured and by the time he was healthy, the Devils were rather successful with Peter Harrold providing support on the back end.  This continued through the team's playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Though he featured in the Philly series, he was switched out after Game 1 against the Rangers and that was that.   In the lockout shortened 2013 season, he only played 37 games and was a healthy scratch for most, if not all, of the 11 games he didn't appear in.  So far this season, he's been scratched once for Mark Fayne and will be scratched again for Fayne tonight.

Needless to say, the fans are disappointed.  I'm not totally happy by the news.  Much of the blame for Larsson not playing is levied at Peter DeBoer.  Well, of course it is.  He sets the lineups.  He makes the changes to the roster as needed on a day-to-day basis.  What fans see is that veteran players like Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov, and Peter Harrold can make critical mistakes but not lose their spot in the lineup.  Only Larsson or Fayne have been in the press box.  As a result of the benching, Larsson's confidence gets shaken and that puts his development in doubt.  Therefore, the team isn't successful and the young would-be defender is held back.  That's the summation of the argument and I can see where that's coming from.

However, I don't think it's as simple as saying the mean old coach hates young guys and so Larsson is held back because of it.  I've never been fully convinced by that argument given his usage of Adam Henrique, Andrei Loktionov, and Jacob Josefson in the last two seasons and the fact he opted to use Mattias Tedenby recently.  In fact, thinking about Tedenby led me to the subject of this very post.  Tedenby, as you know, has played 105 games in the NHL.  He's shown flashes of speed, great puckhandling, and a number of offensive tools.  In between flashes, he's shown that he doesn't defend, he doesn't do well without the puck, he's a liability along the boards, and that he just doesn't do much in between flashes.  He's been given plenty of chances and while he's getting one more right now, he's a fringe NHL player at best.  Since this team that's carrying 14 forwards, that mean his time in the NHL season will be done for the moment when Ryane Clowe returns, possibly to return if or when there's another injury.   It's disappointing that he didn't turn out but no one can say he didn't get his opportunities - including the one he has right now.  If we're willing to judge Tedenby after a hundred games or so, why should Larsson be any different?  Has Adam Larsson developed?

Yes, out of a possible 138 regular season games since he's been drafted, Larsson has missed 30 games.  In several of those 30 games, we would have liked to have him included. Nevertheless, he's played 108 games in three seasons.   I think that's enough to ask whether he's improved in that time.   Let's consider what we know.

Let's start with how he's used by DeBoer, his head coach for all three seasons in the NHL.  He averaged 20:37 in 2011-12 (65 games, third on defense in total ATOI), 18:06 in 2013 (37 games, fourth on defense in total ATOI), and 17:04 so far this season (6 games, sixth on defense in total ATOI).  The drop in minutes isn't a good sign but one must be aware that is nearly all even strength time.  While Larsson did average a 1:38 per game on the power play in 2011-12, he was only there as a second option. Mark Fayne got a 1:30 per game power play time on ice average in that season as well.  Since then, Larsson hasn't been a regular on the power play and he hasn't shown signs that he really should be.  He's averaging over a shot per game now, which is good, but most of his attempts have not been on target so he's not quite there. On the opposite end of special teams, Larsson has not been featured at all.  Those ahead of Larsson in average time on ice in the last two seasons have played significant minutes on either part of special teams, so that's why they come out ahead.  That's also a telling sign for Larsson.  This suggests he hasn't done enough offensively to warrant consideration on the power play.  More worryingly, this suggests he hasn't been good enough in own end to be used in defense-only situations like a penalty kill.

Since Larsson plays the majority of his ice time in even strength situations, let's look at some 5-on-5 metrics.  The good news for Larsson is that he's been a positive possession player.  He's been above the break-even mark in each of this three seasons.  The bad news is how much positive he has been on the ice.  According to Behind the Net, Larsson finished second on the team in on-ice Corsi rate in 2011-12.  A little over 52% of his starts were in the offensive zone so he wasn't sheltered too much.  That's good for a rookie.  However, in 2013, Larsson finished just ahead of Bryce Salvador, the only Devils defenseman to be negative in possession that season. He didn't get sheltered given an offensive zone start percentage of 49%, but it's concerning to see that even Anton Volchenkov was better for possession among Devils blueliners.  In this short season, Extra Skater has Larsson ahead of Volchenkov - and no one else - with a on-ice Corsi percentage of 51.6%. While it's positive, Larsson has been heavily sheltered as his offense-to-defense zone start percentage is 70.1.%, the most generous among all defensemen.  One would hope that with easier zone starts that he'd be positive for shooting attempt differential but one would expect much, much more given such an imbalance.  It's early in the season so extremes like that will level out over time, but Larsson not really pushing the play that much with such a large offensive zone start percentage is not at all indicative of a good start.

Let's throw out some observations, confirmation-biased as they may be, to highlight what Larsson does.  Hockey is a game of mistakes so everyone's bound to make them here or there.  The issue that I find with Larsson is that he can vary wildly with them.  Sometimes, he'll make only minor errors and ultimately have a quiet game - which is a good thing for a defenseman to have.  Other times, he'll have shifts where you wonder where his head is at.  At his best, he's a smooth skater who doesn't panic and can make some great passes.  At his worst, he can get torched by speed and he plays with his head down meaning his shooting attempts go awry (I think this is happening so far this season, in fact), he's unaware on defense in terms of positioning and reacting in his own end, and he takes some big hits that make him suffer.  I suspect that's why the coaches have kept him with Andy Greene more often than not at 5-on-5 last season and this season so Greene can protect him if needed.

In putting all of this together, Larsson is certainly NHL defenseman but he hasn't been all that impressive. He can play significant even strength minutes and he has been.  He doesn't hurt possession, in fact, he's been positive three seasons running.  He can make some slick passes and look like a stud.  But he hasn't been that much of a positive factor in possession regardless of zone starts, he isn't a regular on either half of special teams, and the issues that one may expect from a rookie remain.  All this after 108 regular season games, the majority of which where he was not relegated to limited ice-time.   To answer the question, if he's improved, then it's not by much.

I will agree that I would rather have Larsson and Fayne both out on the ice on defense.  I can agree that Larsson may be a better defender than Volchenkov or Peter Harrold, though it's telling that they have additional roles (PK for Volchenkov, PP for Harrold) that probably keeps them on the roster; and that Larsson hasn't pushed either one of them out those roles.  I definitely hope that Larsson will get better and I think it will be.  But don't tell me he's lacked the opportunity.  He's been given 108 of them, playing alongside a good defenseman most recently, and he will play again.   Short of injury, he'll undoubtedly have at least 150 games on tape by the end of this season. I find it really hard to believe that the reason that Larsson hasn't become what we want him to be was because he didn't play enough.   Getting scratched here and there is annoying, but that also means he hasn't been good enough to force the coaches to scratch someone else.  Something DeBoer did do last season, unless we all forgot that Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold were scratched at points.   If Larsson's not happy about it or his confidence suffers, then it's on him to accept a scratch as a temporary obstacle and build on it.  Something many players, such as Patrik Elias who was getting healthy scratched into the fourth season of his career, had to do.  Since Larsson hasn't been a stand out player, he has not been a difference maker, and he has not been important enough to be given other roles, then I can more understand - not agree, but understand - why he sometimes gets scratched.  His potential, where he was drafted, and what year he was born in, means little to what the team is trying to do, which is winning games right now.  Whether Larsson is going to be great a few years from now doesn't help and I doubt that getting scratched here and there is going to prevent him from being great if that is what he'll truly become.

Of course, that's just my own opinion.  I want to know yours about Larsson so far as a player.  Since I know comparisons are going to come up from the first comment onward, consider this first.  If you think Larsson is better than Harrold, Volchenkov, Salvador, Greene, Fayne, and/or Zidlicky right now - and I mean right now, potential is worth nothing now, especially since the Devils need to win just one game - then I want to know how you think Larsson is better right now.  Regardless (or in addition), what do you think is the matter with Larsson? Has he really improved?  Thank you for reading.

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