Adam Larsson had a trying start to the 2014-15 campaign, but he showed enough steady improvement over the latter stages of the season for the New Jersey Devils to award the restricted free agent defenseman with a six-year, $25 million deal.
Larsson, 22, was a healthy scratch for eight of New Jersey’s first nine games this past season, and even in the one game he did suit up, he saw only 12:30 of ice time. But by the end of the season, Larsson was relied upon as one of the top three blueliners on the Devils and his continued improvement should give the Devils hope Larsson could be on the verge of his big breakout.
Had the two sides not come to a deal, Larsson's camp and the Devils would have met at an arbitration hearing next week. According to reports, Devils GM Ray Shero was hoping he could lock up the defenseman to a long-term deal and Saturday's signing does just that.
Drafted fourth overall in 2011 – only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau were selected ahead of Larsson – the Swedish defenseman has struggled since his rookie season, but he’s steadily improved with the chance to become a top-pairing defenseman for the length of his contract should his game take another step forward.
The real strength of Larsson’s game, and where he especially excelled this past season, is his play in the offensive zone and transitioning the puck up ice. In 64 games in 2014-15, Larsson scored three goals and 24 points, both career highs for the blueliner. Of Larsson’s 21 assists, 16 came at even strength, with eight being the primary helper on New Jersey markers. And, after spending the past two seasons bouncing between the AHL’s Albany Devils and the NHL’s Devils, Larsson’s offensive game finally looks as if it's ready for the big league.
While he didn’t get much time on the power play in 2014-15 – he averaged less than 30 seconds per game with the extra man – he was still the Devils leading point-getter from the blueline. That his defense-leading point total came while he also maintained the second-lowest shooting percentage of the Devils’ 500-plus minute rearguards is a positive for New Jersey, too. And, considering he led the defense in scoring while starting the lowest percentage of shifts in the offensive zone of any Devils defenseman, he’s clearly found a knack for turning the play up ice.
The biggest concern with the deal, however, is that Larsson’s game could regress again which would make him an expensive depth blueliner who might be difficult to ship out with a cap hit of roughly $4.17 million. At this point, it’s a gamble: Larsson has all the upside to be a standout for the Devils, but he looked like he was going to be a top-pairing defenseman after a decent rookie campaign. That didn't pan out and Larsson ended up playing more AHL games than NHL games in the two seasons following his rookie campaign.
One also wonders what this means for defenseman Damon Severson, who this past season could have been a worth nominee for the Calder Trophy had he not fractured his ankle in December, which caused him to miss 31 games. Severson is already looking like he could be a big part of the Devils moving forward and Larsson's $4.17 million hit sets a precedent for how much New Jersey values young, skilled defenseman.
That said, if Larsson improves, a $4.17 cap hit for a defenseman who is going to be playing top-four minutes and could become a top-pairing player is easily workable. At present, the Devils have more than $14 million in cap space and are going through a massive roster turnover. Both Larsson and Severson will be part of the Devils' blueline going forward, and Larsson’s contract doesn’t hinder the Devils at all.
Now, the hope is Larsson's game keeps trending in the right direction and that the club will be able to coach Larsson into the player they were hoping he would become when he was selected at the top of the 2011 draft.