Buffalo Sabres two-way forward Johan Larsson was having a rough go of it in the scoring department through the first half of the season. He went scoreless in his first seven games and was without a goal through his first 27. Through 47 games his stat-line read 1 goal, 4 assists and a minus-9 rating.
Although he was doing plenty right during that time, nothing seemed to be working for Larsson as he trudged through a pretty difficult time. However in the latter half of the season he would gain some traction then put together a late season flourish after a move by head coach Dan Bylsma that would have him centering a line of Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta in February.
Bylsma had been doing a lot of juggling for much of the season trying to find chemistry as well as overcome various injuries that hampered his lineup from pretty much the get-go. It was a period of adjustment for a number of players as well as for himself, but when Bylsma but that trio together for a game at Ottawa, they did enough things well that he kept them together. One game later No. 1 center Ryan O'Reilly went down with a lower body injury at Columbus the next game and Larsson found himself in a shutdown role against the leagues top centers.
Seven games into his new-found role, Bylsma was quite pleased with what he had seen from Larsson. "I think he’s done a real good job in that spot,” said the coach to the gathered media prior to their game against Toronto. “I think that’s where his role is on the team. Some people label that fourth-line center or checking center or third-line center. I’m not going to get too caught up in that, but I think that’s a very good spot for him to be in and wanting to think he’s showing he can be in.
“The fact that he’s picked up a couple goals here and there lately is just a benefactor of him being in the right spot at the right time. I think he can add in that regard but really be more the role of a checking, defensive, hard-to-play-against guy.”
Larsson had just finished scoring goals in back-to-back games for the second time in his career when Bylsma said that and had three in his last five. During that seven-game stretch Larsson also played against some of the top centers in the league including Sidney Crosby, Miko Koivu and Anze Kopitar as well as rookie phenom Connor McDavid, and he came away with a minus-1 rating.
That seemed to propel him to a strong finish tallying nine goals and adding three assists while going plus-5 in 27 games to finish the season. It was the second year in a row that he came on strong late in the season. In a rough and rocky 2014-15 campaign for the team under former head coach Ted Nolan, Larsson couldn't find his game during call-ups from Rochester that totaled 22 games. He had a goal and two assists and was minus-1 in those games. Yet post trade deadline he registered five goals and eight assists while going a plus-1 in his final 17.
When he's on his game the 5'11" 200 lb. Larsson is a real pest to play against. It took him a while to gain his footing at the NHL-level but he seems to have found his role thanks to Bylsma finding him a home. After signing a one-year, $950K contract extension this summer, Larsson told the Sabres' Brian Duff that he feels comfortable now and he believes Bylsma knows the type of player that he is.
That type of player, as mentioned by Duff, seems to be in the vein of Swedish countryman, Sami Pahlsson.
Pahlsson was with Anaheim when the franchise made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003 and won the Cup in 2007. Widely considered one of the top defensive forwards at that time, Pahlsson was a key cog in the Ducks Cup-run to the point where he was considered a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate for MVP of the playoffs in 2007 (Scott Neidermayer won) while also finishing the 2007 season as runner up for the Frank Selke Trophy for best defensive forward. He lost that one to Rod Brind'Amour despite having more first place votes.
Larsson needs to get off to a better start this year than last and should Bylsma keep his line together it could very well help Larsson out. Although past successes are not indicative of future results, the trio of Larsson, Foligno and Gionta had a lot of chemistry and there's no reason to believe that they couldn't continue with that. Would they rival the checking line of Pahlsson, Rob Neidermayer and Travis Moen on the Ducks Cup-winning team? Probably not but a fourth line that's hard to play against while also contributing offensively will go a long way towards any success the Sabres may have this season.
And Larsson would be at the center of that.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane / C, Ryan O'Reilly / RW, Kyle Okposo
LW, Tyler Ennis / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
LW, Matt Moulson / C, Zemgus Girgensons / RW, Justin Bailey
C, Johan Larsson
D, Rasmus Ristolainen/ Dmitry Kulikov
D, Zach Bogosian/ D, Jake McCabe
G, Robin Lehner