Larsson’s Quiet Dominance

From base stats, to underlying metrics, Johan Larsson is having his best season as a Buffalo Sabre

As Jack Eichel continues to rack up points at an astounding rate, one player whose performance has flown under the radar this season is Johan Larsson. This past summer, fans of the Buffalo Sabres were split as to whether the team should re-sign the RFA centerman. In six seasons at the NHL level, hasn’t produced much offensively and, as a member of the “tank era” Sabres, there were some who felt that, in the spirit of starting fresh, the team should forgo the option to extend him a qualifying offer, and allow him to become a free agent.

Prior to suffering a wrist injury that derailed a, to that point, productive 2016-17 campaign (11 points in 36 games), the former second-round pick was seen as part of the franchise’s future core. When he returned from said injury, he appeared to have taken a step back, posting only 17 points in 80 games the following season. From an analytics standpoint, his relative adjusted Corsi and expected goals metrics (which were already pedestrian) took a notable hit as well.

In 2018-19, Larsson did receive some due recognition for his ability as a defensive pivot, providing favorable metrics in a revised role on the fourth line. Having seemingly embraced that responsibility to a greater extent this season, the 27-year-old has reached a new level in terms of overall impact. Those who closely follow the Sabres are aware of the fact that Larsson and his linemates were used in an almost exclusively defensive role last year under Phil Housley. While his line produced almost nothing offensively, their adjusted xGA and Corsi metrics were extremely impressive.

The question this summer became whether or not Larsson’s defensive impacts were enough to warrant a contract extension, especially with a younger (and perhaps more offensively gifted) two-way center like Rasmus Asplund waiting in the wings. Obviously, the team felt it prudent to keep him around, inking him to a one-year, $1.55 million deal.

That’s all pretty straight forward. Defensively specialized forward signs an inexpensive, short-term contract. Things get a little more interesting when you dive into how Larsson has, not only maintained his excellent defensive metrics, but provided offensive production as well this season. In fact, with 12 points in 31 games, he’s on pace to post career-highs as we approach the mid-way point.

Let’s examine how he’s been used in Ralph Krueger’s inaugural season, and how his improved performance ties into his adjusted role. The defining feature of Larsson’s 2018-19 season was his deployment. His offensive zone-start rate of 16.12-percent was the lowest on the team. While Krueger has adopted a similar approach to maximize his skill set, the extent isn’t nearly as extreme with an OZS rate that currently stands at 35.50-percent.

It’s likely that this revised usage ratio has played a role in his offensive uptick (the extent of which is up for debate). The greater impact however, might lie in how well the Sabres’ line of Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Kyle Okposo (AKA, the “LOG” line) has managed to maintain offensive pressure while not sacrificing anything defensively.

The only real issue that the Sabres’ de facto fourth line has faced is an inability to finish. While their expected-goals metrics are well above-average, their actual goals-for numbers are below-average. Still, their ability to dominate possession and suppress their opponent’s offensive production has proven more than valuable.

Larsson’s on-ice presence becomes even more impressive when you examine his shot concentration and location charts both for, and against. As illustrated below, the Sabres allow 16-percent fewer shots-against per-60 than the league average when he is on the ice. On top of that, opposing team’s high-danger opportunities are virtually non-existent.

As a team, the Sabres allow three more shots-against per-60 than the league average. That represents a staggering 19-percent delta. For a player that starts in the defensive zone nearly 65-percent of the time, that is extremely impressive.

Often times, the Larsson line has accomplished this high-level of shot-suppression against opposing team’s top lines. Obviously they don’t always match up against their opponent’s most threatening offensive trios, but there’s very little (if any) performance disparity when they do.

When Marcus Johansson was injured last month, Krueger did give Larsson a little time centering a high-end finisher in Jeff Skinner, and while that experiment didn’t last very long (only 72 minutes together this season at 5-on-5), they posted a relative xGF mark of 9.82-percent (which is higher than each of them have registered without the other).

While he certainly isn’t a conventional choice to be a top-six centerman, in small samples, Larsson has shown the ability to fill in alongside offensively talented wingers without sacrificing anything in terms of possession or scoring chances. Though the “LOG” line has sustained a level of chemistry and cohesion that is tough not to love, perhaps giving him more time with scoring wingers wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if players like Johansson struggle to produce. After all, Larsson does have nine points in his last nine games, and it appears that his xG dominance is finally being rewarded in his base numbers.

At the end of the season, Jason Botterill will have a decision to make. Should Larsson produce in the 30-point range  (which he is currently on pace to do), he’ll receive a decent raise as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent. Something in the neighborhood of $2.5 million AAV wouldn’t be out of the question for a penalty-killing, metrically dominant center who can produce points.

For a team that has well-established depth woes down the middle, and a fair amount of money coming off the books, perhaps that’s a price worth paying. As it stands, a strong argument can be made that he’s the second-best center on the roster.

RAPM Chart courtesy of Evolving Hockey

xG Graph courtesy of Charting Hockey

Shot Heat Maps courtesy of HockeyViz