Johan Larsson is really an interesting player to dive into. The 26-year-old center has been a staple of the Buffalo Sabres bottom six the last few years and people have varying degrees of thoughts on him as a player. Admittedly, I was one of the people that wanted him off the roster prior to this past season.
This season, however, he had the best bounce-back season of any player on the roster. It may not have reflected in his production, but it did in the on-ice impact. Now, he’s a restricted free agent and Jason Botterill is left with a decision to make. Does he bring Larsson back or move on for a different player?
Before we answer that question, it’s important to fully understand the type of player the Sabres have in Larsson and how he’s been utilized the past few seasons under Phil Housley.
Heavy Defensive Deployment
Housley really believed in having a line or group of players that were designated to defensive deployment. Some coaches believe in this same philosophy, but not to the drastic measure of Housley. Larsson started 68.3 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone during the 2017-18 season and this past season started a stunningly 83.4 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, according to Natural Stat Trick.
That 83.4 percent defensive zone start was actually the heaviest defensive deployment for any forward to play at least 200 minutes, besides Zemgus Girgensons (83.7% this season), in the last four years. He had one of the more difficult usages on the team and often found himself out against one of the opponents better offensive lines.
Yet, from an on-ice impact standpoint at 5 on 5, he was good, especially defensively. He was the best defensive forward on the team and still managed to score 14 points with his extreme defensive responsibilities as the RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey below lays out.
So, let’s break this out further and get a look at Larsson against other fourth line centers in the league. I picked nine other players to compare him against the final four teams and a few other teams. Those players were Brandon Dubinsky, Barclay Goodrow, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Derek Ryan, Adam Lowry, Fredrik Gauthier, Casey Cizikas, Sean Kuraly, and Lucas Wallmark.
I looked at their on-ice 5 on 5 impacts in xGF and xGA from Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model. I also reviewed their offensive zone starts to get an idea of their usage on their respective team. Larsson carried the lowest offensive zone start of the group with only Dubinsky being close to his heavy defensive usage. Larsson was the worst of the group in xGF per 60 impact but was the best in xGA per 60 impact.
Overall the chart below lays out the total xGPM per 60 impact for all 10 players from the RAPM model. Larsson grades out close to the middle and when you consider his heavy defensive zone deployment it’s pretty impressive. The left side of the chart is xGPM and bottom is their oZS percentage.
One of the more interesting things looking at this data is how Larsson graded out better than a prominent player around the league in Dubinsky on a worse team and with a lower quality of teammate.
Something with Larsson that is often overlooked is the bad arm injury he suffered in the 2016-17 season. He dislocated his elbow and wrist after being hit into the corner boards in Boston that season.
The Sabres actually did a story on Larsson’s recovery from that injury during this season. In he talked about how it took a long time to get full strength back in the arm and feel fully comfortable again on the ice. You can see the video below if you didn’t see it.
The reason I bring this up is that he was on pace for a career season prior to that injury. He had six goals and 11 points in 36 games. Putting him on pace for 14 goals and 25 points that season, both of which would have been career highs. He also was a positive impact player at 5 on 5 at both ends of the ice for the Sabres.
That season was one of the few with the Sabres that Larsson was placed with linemates that had some offensive ability. His two most common linemates in the 2016-17 season according to Evolving Hockey were Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno. The last two years, his most common linemates were Zemgus Girgensons, Jordan Nolan, Kyle Okposo, and Jason Pominville.
Dan Bylsma still used Larsson in defensive deployments at 5 on 5 during the 2016-17 campaign, but only at a 32.48 percent offensive zone start rate. Not as drastic as Housley’s deployment this past season.
It makes you wonder if the Swede could be more productive offensively with a role that isn’t so heavy defensively and higher quality linemates. I decided to test this theory, at least in terms of zone start situations.
I calculated Larsson’s expected goals per 60 at even strength in games where his zone start rate was below 30 percent (very heavy defensive usage) and above 30 percent to see if we saw a difference.
The data on the chart above confirms my theory. His xGF per 60 jumps from 1.76 to 2.11 when he gets over 30 percent offensive zone starts.
Larsson has some offensive ability in his game. He’s shown flashes of having the ability to score using his shot making a smart offensive read. You’ll find one such clip of a goal against the St. Louis Blues below.
The former second-round pick is good possession player at 5 on 5. He was a positive Corsi at 50.24 percent this past season. The area he struggles is creating quality scoring chances. Thus adding linemates that can create some high-quality scoring chances and have the ability to finish will help increase his offensive output.
We saw two examples of that for parts of this season. Larsson’s xGF per 60 jumped up to 2.01 from 1.78 playing with Patrik Berglund. With Jason Pominville as his linemate it jumped to 2.25.
In conclusion, the Sabres could find an improvement for Larsson as a fourth-line center. However, they don’t need to move on from the energetic forward. He could be a cheap one to two-year bridge to a player like Rasmus Asplund.
As long as Ralph Krueger doesn’t use him in a heavy defensive role and Botterill can add some more talent to the bottom of the roster; Larsson should increase his offensive output. Along with his defensive impact and strong penalty-kill ability, the Sabres could have a solid all-around fourth-line player.