Johan Larsson’s career in the NHL had mimicked a yo-yo since the Buffalo Sabres traded for him from the Minnesota Wild. At the time of the trade, he was thought of on a wide ranging scale, from quality prospect destined to make an NHL impact to a pseudo throwaway with the Wild fans laughing that he wasn’t Zucker or Coyle. What was once thought of as a haul for Jason Pominville had turned into a kind of dry heave as Larsson wore what seemed like a cloak of invincibility each time he had an opportunity in the NHL with the Sabres. His critics discarded him with tomorrow’s trash, indicating the last thing the team needed going forward was another empty uniform, another passenger. He was seen as a pest and not much more, fated to be a bottom 6, 4th line plug or worse, a permanent Mancari type AHL all-star who couldn’t handle the big league. His supporters, those dwindling hearty souls, countered with the common refrain of how could he perform well playing with garbage as line mates. To be fair, while one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, there were few treasures, if any, playing on the same line as Johan Larsson during his various stints with the Sabres. The best that he could likely do with who he played with was simply to look like he wasn’t terrible, and when the best you can do is not look lost on the ice compared to those you play with, you are setup for failure and have an impossible task to look like you belong.
That was Johan Larsson’s raison d'etre until a funny, very much expected thing happened at the deadline when the team gave the exit stage left order to almost any player of note that was a UFA after the current season. All of a sudden, Larsson had a real chance to play meaningful minutes and not be glued to the bench with the other 4th line plugs. It likely helped that Larsson had a few of his season long AHL teammates alongside as call ups due to all the players no longer there. Another assist may need to go to Phil Varone for his decent play centering the so-called top line while Larsson was plugging away on 3rd line duties. Even though you are teammates, you are a competitor first, especially if you are playing a professional sport, and when you see a player that you know is not as good as you playing well on the top line, it can spur you to play harder as deep down you know you deserve that chance, and often that determination exudes into performance, which is precisely what happened to Larsson during this recent stretch of play.
This is nothing but good news long term for the team to have another young player outside the current organizational top 2 that looks fit to play Center in the NHL, but au contraire, as Larsson’s play has also brought with it a question about his long term viability. Specifically, what role does Larsson fill going forward for next season?
There is a chicken and the egg argument with Larsson’s production and play recently that goes something like this: has he produced so well because he is playing with the team’s two best wingers or is he playing so well simply because he is maturing and he has talent?
The truth likely lies in the middle, as it so often does, but going forward, where does Larsson slot in with the team, starting with the 2015-2016 season? He is an RFA next year and it will be a surprise if the team does not sign him. At worst he is a trade chip, and at the very least he will be a piece of the team for next year. Using next year as the first bridge to pass, where does Larsson play? I’ve always thought of him as a winger of the 3rd line variety as his ceiling in the NHL, or a 4th line center, should he remain at the center position. After this recent run of play, he deserves the chance to change my opinion, and many others, regarding his future. If all three of Girgensons, Reinhart, and the draft pick are on the roster next year, does Johan become the odd man out? I highly doubt either he or Zemgus would have much trouble playing wing on the same line, and the idea of those two with Foligno on a line is quite fun to think about. I have no idea if either or both would bristle at being moved away from their natural position of center. If one of Reinhart or the pick are not on the roster next year, I think it becomes much easier. You have Zemgus and Johan as your top two while sheltering minutes for your brightest hope (whomever that may be).
My suspicion on Larsson at this time is that while he has clearly improved, as he has done, to his credit, every season, his production with the Sabres in this recent stretch of games is more to do with them playing a terrible team or two and many other teams simply dismissing the Sabres as nothing more than road kill. If he is given a top 2 center job next season, as he may deserve should he finish the year producing like this, I feel he may be unmasked a bit when other teams focus on him, and that may relegate him more so to the reality I mentioned previously as a 3rd line winger or 4th line center.
However, Johan has fooled me so far with his recent play, and who’s to say he won’t fool me once again next year should he be given the chance?