Johan Larsson, one of the longest tenured member of the Buffalo Sabres, currently finds himself on the outside looking in.
Larsson began his time with the Sabres on April 3, 2013, when he was traded to Buffalo as part of a deal that sent Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild.
Since the consummation of that trade, Larsson has gone on to play 330 games with the franchise.
This offseason, Larsson sits off to the side as an unsigned restricted free agent.
With Jason Botterill’s “roster surgery” currently taking place, one has to wonder if Larsson still has a place within the franchise.
On the surface, many want Larsson flushed out because of the losing stink attached to him.
In those 330 games played over six seasons, the Sabres never finished a season with more than 81 points - easy to see why that stigma attaches itself to Larsson.
We have heard rumblings this offseason that Larsson might be headed back overseas and away from the National Hockey League.
Magnus Wahlman’s Larsson-to-Brynas claims have not yet been debunked but as time goes on, it seems less likely that Larsson would jump ship.
When it comes to Larsson’s status, it might behoove the Sabres to get him under contract sooner rather than later.
Larsson has shown that he is a solid two-way forward with a high-level of trust among the coaching staffs he has played under.
Throughout his six seasons, Larsson has started in the defensive zone an average of 67.7% of the time, with a career-high 84.4% defensive zone starts last season alone.
The large amount of defensive zone starts do hamper Larsson’s point totals – 79 career points (32 goals, 47 assists) – but his ability to win faceoffs is definitely a plus.
Last season alone, Larsson won 50.7% of faceoffs taken – 503 faceoffs won, 490 faceoffs lost.
For his career, Larsson sits at 50.3% faceoffs won.
Before suffering a major injury against the Boston Bruins on December 31, 2016, Larsson’s role with the Sabres was locked in. Consistency was becoming a trademark of his game.
He had found a comfortable role in the team’s bottom six, which benefitted both the player and the team.
Following the elbow and wrist dislocation, Larsson’s game struggled to come back around.
It truly took until last season for Larsson to regain full confidence in his game, which is evident through all the available statistics.
Evolving-Hockey projects a Larsson contract at two years / $1,783,041 average annual value.
When looking at the remaining centers who might fill the gap left by Larsson, eyes start internally with Zemgus Girgensons.
Girgensons recently re-signed with the Sabres for one year at an average annual value of $1,600,000.
In his six seasons with the Sabres, Girgensons has taken 2,282 faceoffs. Only 132 of those faceoffs have come since the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
Judging by statistics alone, Girgensons has completed the transition from center to winger. While we see wingers like Jeff Skinner take a large amount of faceoffs, Girgensons is being shielded from these.
That alone should tell you that Buffalo might want to look elsewhere, if they believe Girgensons is an option at the fourth-line center position.
In terms of wins above replacement, last season was the first time in three seasons that Girgensons had broken even in the category.
His time with Buffalo has actually featured four of six seasons with a wins above replacement of 0.0 or worse.
On the free agent market, options are limited but intriguing names come with hefty projected price tags.
Joe Thornton is not coming to Buffalo to play fourth-line center but if you want to think about that idea – his price tag last season was $5,000,000.
Matt Cullen is 42 years old, coming off a $650,000 cap hit, which makes him likely to retire or sign with a Stanley Cup contender.
One last idea would be Rasmus Asplund.
Seen by many as a strong two-way player, just like Larsson, Asplund struggled out of the gate when adjusting to the North American game.
Asplund was able to find his niche throughout the second half of the American Hockey League season, finishing with 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in 75 games.
Elite Prospects states that Asplund “reads the game impressively, is responsible with the puck and is a strong passer.” These are all aspects of his game that were very evident in Rochester.
Back in March, our own Melissa Burgess wrote about Rasmus Asplund and spoke with Americans defenseman Lawrence Pilut on the topic.
”I think he (Asplund) plays with a lot of confidence,” Pilut said. “I think he really takes control of his game and plays with so much poise out there. It’s just amazing to see. He’s been growing a lot lately.”
While Asplund appears to be hot on the trail, all these aforementioned names go further to drive home the idea of Johan Larsson being an important piece to not only the center depth for the organization but an important piece for the Sabres fourth line.
Larsson might not be the flashiest player on the Sabres roster but his role remains important.