We all know a lot can change from season to season. Back in October most people had seen enough of Johan Larsson in a Buffalo Sabres sweater and were ready to move on. After two years of poor play and having such a negative impact on the club it was hard to dispute that stance.
Nearly four months into the season the tune has changed on Larsson. The 26-year-old Swede has been one of the surprising bright spots on the club this season. He’s emerged as a legitimate bottom six player for the Sabres this season and one of their better 5 on 5 forwards in terms of shot rate.
Early in the season, there were talks that Larsson had come into this season in great shape and a focus on re-establishing himself as a useful NHL player. So far, it has paid off.
He’s embraced his role as the club’s fourth line center and realistically has been their second-most consistent pivot all season. Paired with Zemgus Girgensons, another player having a decent season considering his role, they have helped a few different players come out on the positive end of possession.
One example of this is how they’re starting to get Kyle Okposo back on track right now. For most of the season playing without Larsson and Girgensons, Okposo has had a 5 on 5 Corsi for percentage of 46.31. Since being placed on that line, Okposo now has a 61.84 CF% at 5 on 5 according to Natural Stat Trick.
He’s also gone from being a -11 in scoring chances at even strength to a +11 with Larsson and Girgensons. The chart below from Sean Tierney shows how effective any line centered by Larsson this year has a good impact on the shot rate. The two logos I circled are lines centered by Larsson with Evan Rodrigues and the other with Tage Thompson.
Outside of his even strength influence, Larsson has been a big part of the Sabres penalty kill that ranks ninth in the league entering play last night. He’s made smarter decisions with the puck and has avoided taking the lazy penalty.
He’s on pace for his highest goal total (seven) since the 2015-16 season and could have his first 20 point season with a strong second half. He’s currently on pace for 14 points.
Larsson will be a restricted free agent this summer and we’ll see what Jason Botterill has planned for the veteran center. At one point it was ludicrous to consider giving Larsson another contract after his current one expires. Now, it may be the smart move to allow younger players to continue to develop at the right pace below him.