Short of any news update, Adam Larsson is expected to not be in the lineup for the tenth time this season. With every game that #5 isn't on the ice, the canard that Peter DeBoer doesn't trust young players has arisen. Given that I'm turning 30 today, I feel this is worth exploring and subsequently debunking. It's not age that has sent Larsson to the press box but the fact he's part of a blueline with eight NHL players on it.
First, let's look at the 2011-12 roster that DeBoer had for his first year as the Devils head coach. The following players were under the age of 25 at the start of the season and played at least one game with New Jersey: Adam Larsson (18), Jacob Josefson (20), Alexander Urbom (21), Mattias Tedenby (21), Adam Henrique (21), Nick Palmieri (22), Vladimir Zharkov (23), and Mark Fayne (24). Here were their stats in the 2011-12 season: basic stats come from NHL.com and advanced stats come from Behind the Net and are in 5-on-5 situations.
|GP||G||A||P||+/-||PIM||PPG||SHG||ATOI||Corsi Rel QoC Rank||On-Ice Corsi||OZS%||SOG||S%|
|2011-12 - Adam Larsson||65||2||16||18||-7||20||0||0||20:37||7/11||1.65||52.1||68||2.9|
|2011-12 - Jacob Josefson||41||2||7||9||10||6||0||0||12:05||13/20||5.96||55.1||37||5.4|
|2011-12 - Alexander Urbom||5||1||0||1||1||9||0||0||13:35||9/11||-9.27||51.4||3||33.3|
|2011-12 - Mattias Tedenby||43||1||5||6||-15||16||0||0||10:45||10/20||-5.38||50.7||46||2.2|
|2011-12 - Adam Henrique||74||16||35||51||8||7||0||4||18:09||6/20||2.32||47.4||130||12.3|
|2011-12 - Nick Palmieri||38||4||3||7||-7||12||0||0||10:35||16/27||-10.27||48.0||55||7.3|
|2011-12 - Vladimir Zharkov||4||0||0||0||-2||0||0||0||4:52||14/20||31.72||100||0||0.0|
|2011-12 - Mark Fayne||82||4||13||17||-4||26||0||0||20:11||2/11||1.46||49.9||94||4.3|
Fayne was used as a top-four defenseman and succeeded. Henrique didn't initially stick with the team, got hot during a second chance, and was a mainstay between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise for most of the season. He finished as a finalist for the Calder Trophy before scoring two legendary goals in the team's 2012 playoff run. Zharkov never got a fair shake after a call-up as he was stuck with goons and then sent back to Albany for the rest of the season. Urbom was just up with the Devils for another taste of the next level. Mattias Tedenby played his way off the roster, Palmieri played his way into being a throw-in for the Marek Zidlicky trade (stats include his 9 games with the Wild), and Josefson showed flashes of greatness but his season was cut short by significant injuries. Larsson immediately started in New Jersey and averaged over twenty minutes per game before the toll of the NHL season caught up to him and led to worse play. Still, it was a big year for a big defender coming over from the SEL right away.
Among this group, Fayne and Henrique were featured quite a bit in the playoffs whereas Larsson and Josefson only got a few games. In the case, we know why Larsson . Peter Harrold showed in Larsson's absence that he can contribute without hurting the team and so DeBoer went with him in games. Still, DeBoer had no issue with the then-under-25 Fayne (he turned 25 during the playoffs) or the young Henrique up in the top nine. As long as they played well and contributed, they got significant minutes during the season. Josefson might have had a chance to do more but injuries undercut that possibility. The other young guys were on the borderline of being on the roster. Only Zharkov can feel aggrieved about not being given a real chance to do work since his few games had him sandbagged with guys like Eric Boulton and/or Cam Janssen. Immediately, this does not follow the canard of DeBoer having an issue with younger players.
As for this season, the list of young guys have changed. Fayne turned 25 so he's not so "young" anymore. Tedenby and Josefson started with the team along with 2012 first rounder and 18-year old Stefan Matteau. Adam Larsson didn't initially play but he was on the roster. The team did call up 2012 summer signing 24-year old forward Harri Pesonen and they acquired 22-year old Andrei Loktionov. Here's their stats this season from the same sources.
|GP||G||A||P||+/-||PIM||PPG||SHG||ATOI||Corsi Rel QoC Rank||On-Ice Corsi||OZS%||SOG||S%|
|2013 - Adam Larsson||28||0||5||5||4||12||0||0||18:01||4/8||2.67||46.7||15||0.0|
|2013 - Jacob Josefson||16||0||1||1||-10||2||0||0||13:10||17/21||-5.46||42.7||13||0.0|
|2013 - Andrei Loktionov||20||7||4||11||0||4||1||0||14:26||12/21||15.03||56.9||29||24.1|
|2013 - Mattias Tedenby||4||0||1||1||0||2||0||0||8:59||20/21||-15.46||40.0||2||0.0|
|2013 - Adam Henrique||32||10||4||14||0||10||3||2||18:36||9/21||11.19||44.4||58||17.2|
|2013 - Stefan Matteau||17||1||2||3||-1||6||0||0||9:11||5/21||-10.27||48.0||22||4.5|
|2013 - Harri Pesonen||4||0||0||0||-1||2||0||0||9:11||3/21||21.23||55.0||3||0.0|
Just like last season, those who've contributed get minutes and play larger roles. Tedenby had his chance early on and didn't make the most of it. That's why he's back in Albany and not scoring for them. Josefson got big minutes early in the season but he faded and was sent down to "regain confidence." Matteau was given starts in the top six but often didn't play late in games. He was returned to his junior team since it was clear he wasn't ready for this level of play just yet. Pesonen was only called up as a fill-in for the fourth line; getting at least eight minutes per game on that line looks like a sign of approval to me. Henrique is definite part of the top six. Loktionov has been a part of that group in recent weeks, thanks to a hot stick. Again, if you can contribute, then you will play. Henrique and Loktionov alone disprove the notion that DeBoer doesn't like younger players. The harsh reality is that most of the younger players, like in 2010-11, aren't set NHL players. I'd love to say Josefson is ready for the next step for good and Pesonen has a possible chance of being a fourth liner. But the Devils have plenty of bottom six forwards such that it's not as necessary. That said, the team's giving Josefson another chance as they called him up on Friday.
While Larsson saw his ATOI drop from last season, he's faced stronger competition relative to the other defensemen on the team and less favorable zone starts. It was actually lower in the season but he and Andy Greene have been thrown out for better starts in recent weeks. Still, it's not like he's been relegated to a third pairing for this season. Larsson has only had a handful of games of less than 15 minutes (three times) and he's played 8 games of 20 minutes or more. And an average of 18 minutes isn't anything to sniff at; it's more than Harrold, Tallinder, and Volchenkov. Larsson doesn't play on the power play - namely because he had not attempted a lot of shots at evens this season - and receives a regular PK shift if one of regulars (Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov) are in the box. So most of that time on ice is at even strength. Now, Larsson hasn't been bad by the numbers. So why was he made inactive for nine games going on ten?
Thanks to Tom Gulitti's counting, it's the same reason why other defensemen have been healthy scratches. The same reason why Mark Fayne, who is 25, played in all 82 games last season, in important situations, and has fantastic advanced stats this season, has been a healthy scratch for 11 games. The same reason why Anton Volchenkov, who turned 31 this year and is basically a PK specialist now, was scratched for 6 games. Henrik Tallinder, who's 34 and has been a top four defenseman up until this season, was a healthy scratch for 9 games. The same reason why Peter Harrold, who is 29 and one of the unluckiest defensemen in the league, has been scratched for 24 games and didn't get to play in consecutive games until March. The leash is short on most of the defensemen because there are eight of them on the roster. There are two scratched for every game. So if someone struggles for a night or two, then there's someone who has proven themselves in the past to step in and perform.
In the case of Larsson, he was most recently scratched after a terrible game in Ottawa, which was followed by several games where he may not have been torched for goals against but has made several errors all the same. Often by way of not necessarily looking before playing the puck or making a decision. Larsson did appear in the team's game against Florida last week but that was in replacement of Harrold and Volchenkov, who had a terrible game the night before. They're subject to the metaphorical leash as well. Moreover, it's worth noting that Volchenkov - who has been averaging a mere 15:58 per game, boosted by shorthanded ice time - only appeared in last night's game because the team wanted to keep Tom Kostopoulos out for one more night. Given that the seventh defenseman would only play about 12 minutes or so, the coaches went with a defenseman who doesn't play all that much to begin with.
The only defensemen who haven't been scratched have been Andy Greene, who's arguably one of the team's best defensemen; Bryce Salvador, who's the captain and won't be benched because teams usually do not bench their captain; and Marek Zidlicky, who attempts a lot, shoots quite a bit, and produces, well, not much. Given he's the lone offensive defenseman on this team and helps make the first power play unit go, he's not going to see the bench either as well. With three guys pretty much set for the roster, this means there are five guys who have played significant for three spots. Therefore, a night where a defender is struggling with the puck or makes several errors regardless of whether they end up in the back of the net could mean he sits the next day for someone capable.
Basically, if your beef is Larsson sitting out at all, then the root cause is the fact there are so many defensemen on the roster. The coaches didn't bring in eight guys and given that all eight can help out in their own ways, it behooves them to play them. The whole point of carrying extra guys isn't just for cover when injuries happen but also to give a slumping player an out. Player development isn't their main task - especially now, it's to get results. Larsson hasn't brought any offense to the table and defensively he's had some recent struggles. It's not the end of the world or stunting his development anymore than scratching Tallinder, Harrold, Fayne, or Volchenkov makes them poorer defenders. Especially considering Larsson has played more games than any of those guys in 2012-13 since he appeared in 33 games with Albany. When any of those guys has an awful not or a couple of bad ones, Larsson will be back in the lineup, DeBoer could very easily give him 18-20 minutes depending on who he's paired with (it's been Greene for most of this season) and the sun will still rise the next day. Then his confidence (or whatever is the buzzword of the day) will suddenly improve provided he plays well.
While there's clear evidence against the notion of DeBoer not playing young guys this and last season, the lack of under-25 NHL players on the Devils isn't DeBoer's problem. It really goes up to Lou and, more specifically, the scouting led by David Conte. The team really hasn't hit on a lot draft picks in recent years. The forward prospects in the system are mostly projected to be bottom-six players such as defensive specialists or "energy" guys. A couple might make it but they're not there yet. The team's best prospects so far are defensemen, a position the Devils already have a lot of quantity in. Ergo, there's not a lot of room to groom someone new and there's not many NHL-ready young guys in the system. There might be in coming years and by that time, Larsson will likely improve into a top four defenseman based on the fact that he's been used that way well more often than not when he is in the lineup. In the big picture, Larsson's closing in on 100 NHL games before he's 21 and it's clear he has a long career ahead of him. Ten games as a scratch in 2013 is a drop in the proverbial bucket. With that in mind, I don't think it's worth getting mad at Larsson not being in the lineup or parroting a non-truth like how DeBoer supposedly doesn't like young players. If you want to gripe, there's a whole lot of not-scoring to be mad at.