If you don’t believe there’s nearly insurmountable pressure that comes with being a high draft pick, certainly 22-year-old New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson could tell you a thing or two.
Larsson was the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, taken right behind names like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, and one pick before Islanders breakout star Ryan Strome. Of all five players, none have taken knocks as often as Larsson. But this season, Larsson is starting to turn some heads.
The pressure on Larsson, who also just so happens to be the only defenseman of the group, was felt almost immediately. On a team that’s iced blueliners like Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, and Ken Daneyko and within a franchise that’s glory days came as one of the most stifling defensive units the league has ever seen, there’s no mistaking why pressure was even higher for Larsson. New Jersey is synonymous with defense, and he was supposed to be the next one.
Thing is, though, Larsson’s first season in 2011-12 wasn’t all that bad. In fact, statistically speaking, you might be able to argue it was his finest yet. He played 65 games in his rookie campaign, scored twice, added 16 assists, all the while averaging over 20 minutes of ice time a game. But then the sophomore slump hit in 2012-13. That slump continued into 2013-14.
Over the course of the two seasons following his rookie year, Larsson actually played more games in the AHL than he did in the big league. For obvious reasons, he was also far more productive. Even this season, things didn’t start out the way the defenseman would have hoped.
When 2014-15 began, Larsson started to watch more games than he was playing in. In fact, most of October was a wash. Trade talks started to circle him and there was serious thought he could be pried away from New Jersey. The talk wasn’t about getting a talented prospect, either. Rather, it was about a reclamation project of a could-be bust.
However, the Swedish defenseman is proving that all that talk was more than a bit premature. In fact, he’s quietly turning himself into the defensive stalwart the Devils had been hoping for all along.
You need look no further than the assignments Larsson has received over the course of his career to get a sense of just how much faith New Jersey is starting to have in their young blueliner. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, when he saw NHL action, he was rather sheltered, generally speaking. Over the course of those two seasons, he only 29 percent of his starts in the defensive zone. Last season, when it seemed the Devils confidence in him was at an all-time low, he started over 40 percent of the time in the offensive zone while facing weak competition.
Now, process all that, then take into account that this season not only is Larsson seeing the most defensive zone starts of his career, he’s also taking those starts against the toughest competition of his career and putting up the best possession figures he’s seen since he has come into the league. Oh, and for good measure, he’s on pace to tie his career bests in goals and points.
Part of the increase in defensive zone starts, of course, is the fact that the team is playing some of its poorest hockey in the last decade. But regardless of the team around him, Larsson is driving play out of his zone. He’s doing it while being paired primarily with Seth Helgeson, who has been a tremendous drag on Larsson’s play in the nearly 80 minutes of even strength time the two have played together.
The only issue thus far is that there still seems to be the slightest lack of confidence in his play. He’s seeing the fewest minutes of any point in his career, but he’s also working back from a time in which he was given little responsibility and, in turn, little trust was put into his ability.
He’s going to make mistakes. He’s going to struggle at times. But he’s got the potential and he’s showing improvement, and those are the things teams want out of young, developing defensemen.
If Larsson’s minutes increase, we could be talking about one of the best draft class top-fives in a long time instead of Larsson as the outlier. He’s shown the growth the Devils had hoped for, now he just needs the chance to become the star they thought he could be.