Larsson growing into role on Devils' blue line
NEWARK, N.J. -- It's never unusual to spot New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson sitting at his locker stall in a reflective state of mind immediately following a game or practice.
Life as a young defenseman in the National Hockey League is unforgiving; the talent and speed of the players in today's game can create some tense moments for any player backing into position.
|Larsson's enjoying a solid sophomore campaign. (Getty Images)|
Larsson is proof of that, particularly as someone who only began playing in North America as an 18-year-old NHL rookie last season.
"You want to improve every day, and this year it's a little bit unique since we have eight [defensemen] here, so you have to earn a spot in the lineup … it's tough, but also good at the same time," Larsson told NHL.com.
The prevailing thought when the Devils drafted the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Swede with the fourth pick in the 2011 NHL Draft was that the organization had gotten a steal. Larsson finished tied for second among first-year NHL defensemen with 16 assists and was fifth with 18 points last season.
Perhaps even more impressive was his equaling a franchise record for rookie defenders with points in five straight games, totaling one goal and four assists from Nov. 19-26 to reach a mark previously accomplished by Scott Niedermayer and Bruce Driver.
New Jersey's depth along the back end was apparent at the start of the 2012-13 season, when Larsson was listed as a healthy scratch for the opening five games of the season.
"It was disappointing because you want to get in as quick as you can right after missing one game," Larsson said. "I think we have a pretty strict system here on how we play. So after the game, you kind of have a feeling how you did, whether it's good or bad. You know the system so well that when you are out of the system and doing things wrong, you know it right away … at least that's how I feel.
"It's good to have that comfort of knowing when you did good or bad, but it's never fun to sit out, no matter what."
Since that five-game sabbatical to start the season, Devils coach Pete DeBoer has scratched Larsson from the lineup just once. While there a few hiccups remain here and there, his play has improved steadily, particularly while alongside veteran blueliner Andy Greene.
"He's helped me out a lot," Larsson said of Greene. "He's probably one of the most underrated [defensemen] in this League. I don't really think people realize how good he is out there. He has skills and the whole package. I feel very comfortable to have him by my side."
For Greene, who has been paired with Larsson for much of the season, the feeling is mutual.
"I think we've been playing pretty well together," Greene told NHL.com. "It's nice because we can both skate with the puck and can move it, so when we do get in trouble we can escape it a little bit. When you have another guy mobile like him, and obviously as good a player as he is, he can make plays."
Devils goalie Johan Hedberg feels Larsson offers tremendous upside.
"I think he's growing and learning every day," Hedberg said. "Sometimes I can see there's even more, but maybe he's not prepared to take that next step yet. I think it's good that he takes everything in stride and doesn't push to do too much even though he may feel like it's in him -- that's a good thing.
"The one thing you learn when you come over from Sweden is that there's a lot more to it than just the game. The season is longer and demanding and that's something he had to learn. I think just the stuff around life with how to handle and take care of yourself … it's important."
Larsson has earned more responsibility on the penalty kill this season, averaging 1:18 of ice time per game with his team shorthanded. The coaching staff seemingly has made a concerted effort to bolster his defensive game. Last year, he was earning just 26 seconds per game on the penalty kill, while averaging 1:38 on the power play.
"I have a different role, playing more PK, because last year was more power play," Larsson said. "But I have to start in the defensive zone. That's where I want to improve right now. I do feel way better this year than last year, but I want to improve my offensive skills as well."
Larsson never has taken a back seat to the physical side of the game. He's currently among the top 10 on the team in hits and is among the top five in blocked shots. Still, he has been labeled on more than one occasion as a "soft" player, which Greene feels is unjustified.
"He's 20 years old and he's going to grow even more … maybe put on another 10 to 15 pounds," Greene said. "I came in as a 23-year old and it was tough, and he's still getting accustomed to life away from Sweden, so there's more changes involved than just hockey.
"Thing is, he's very under control, and maybe that comes off as soft, but I don't think he's a soft player at all."
How does Larsson see himself?
"I see myself as a two-way defenseman, but it doesn't matter to me how the team uses me because I want to help and want to play," he said. "If it's penalty kill or power play, I'll do whatever it takes to make sure I'm part of the team."