The Evolution of Johan Larsson

When Johan Larsson was being considered as an NHL prospect, much of the talk surrounded his leadership skills, his strong work ethic, and his ability to be an excellent two-way player at the professional level. There were concerns over his average skating, and even limited offensive upside, but much was made of him being a perfect “glue” player in the NHL. Thus, we now take a spin through the career thus far of Larsson, to see if these predictions rang true.

Born in Lau, Sweden, Larsson found himself taking a familiar route through the Swedish hockey ranks. His offensive game started to pick up while playing for Brynas IF J20 of the Swedish junior leagues. Over the last two seasons of his Swedish junior play, Larsson compiled 49 points in 50 games. In the middle of those performances, he was drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Wild, as the 56th overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft.

Larsson continued to make progress in his draft plus-one season, as not only was he scoring for the Brynas junior squad, but he was then promoted to Brynas IF of the SHL, the top league in all of Sweden. He responded by compiling 44 points in 92 games.

These efforts also bore fruit to the Swedish pivot as in both his draft plus-one and two seasons, Larsson was selected to play for Sweden at the prestigious IIHF World Junior Championship tournament. Aside from performing well on the scoresheet, Larsson was named as a top-three player on his Swedish team in the first tournament and won a gold medal as the captain of the champion Swedish team in his second go-round.

The accolades continued to pile up for Larsson, all before he made his North American debut. In 2011-12, in what officially was Larsson’s rookie season in the SHL, he won rookie of the year, had the most goals, assists, and points among junior-aged players playing in the league, and his team won the SHL league championship.

It was in the 2012-13 season that saw Larsson make the trip across the pond to North America and his professional debut for the Minnesota Wild organization. 

He toiled mostly in the AHL for the Houston Aeros, and successfully so while notching 37 points in 62 games. With Larsson playing professionally in Sweden against men much older and stronger than him proved a nice starting point, and allowed him to acclimate to the rugged competition of the American Hockey League.

As Larsson’s stock continued to rise through the Wild organization, rumors started to swell between Buffalo and the Wild that a trade, which was to include former captain Jason Pominville, was in the works. Finally, on April 3, 2013, Johan Larsson, along with goaltender Matt Hackett, was traded to Buffalo in exchange for the aforementioned Pominville and a 4th round draft pick.

Many Sabres fans were elated to land Larsson in the trade, seeing him as potentially a top-6 and almost assuredly top-9 center-man for the foreseeable future. Throughout the next two seasons though, those expectations started to waiver, as Larsson bounced back and forth between the big club, and the Sabres’ affiliate in Rochester, having decent seasons for the Americans (81 points in 95 games) and middling results for Buffalo (20 points in 67 games).

It wasn’t until the 2016-17 season where the Swedish center started to find his groove. After compiling 11 points in 36 games, but mostly showing his value as a checking forward, Larsson was enjoying an improving campaign when he was hit on his way to the corner by Bruins’ defenseman Adam McQuaid.

The collision saw Larsson fall and on the slide into the boards, saw Larsson injure his wrist and elbow, requiring surgery, which ended his season.

The next two campaigns, including last year, were very forgettable for Larsson, as in the 153 games he played, he only recorded 31 points in largely a checking-line role. Many fans clamored for Larsson (and common line-mate last season, Zemgus Girgensons) to not have their contracts renewed, wanting fresh players in the roles these two players occupied.

Indeed, even the underlying numbers didn’t favor a Larsson return. In all of his professional seasons in North America, his Corsi For % (measuring the shot attempt percentage for the Sabres while he was on the ice) never eclipsed 50%, and normally wallowed in the low to mid-40s. Thus, his line was getting caved-in in the defensive zone and wasn’t creating much on the offensive side either.

It should be understood though, that part of those numbers are skewed because of the amount of time Larsson and his line-mates start their shift in the defensive zone. Last year alone, Larsson started in the defensive zone on 84% of his shifts, which led the team.

Also, it should be considered that for the vast majority of his time in Buffalo, Larsson has been sidled with, shall we say, less than desirable line partners. When Nic Deslauriers is one of your most common line-mates, you may not have the most sparkling numbers, be they scoring, or advanced. Still, it’s worth noting that the expectations for Larsson from the fan base and what they were actually seeing on the ice were vastly different.

Despite this, on July 12, 2019, the Sabres re-signed the Swedish forward to a one-year contract, worth $1.55M. What the organization has received so far this season has been well worth the money, and more.

Admittedly, the following portion comes with the large caveat that the team has only played six games this year, and much can change in that time. However, the results thus far have been nothing short of stunning.

It was thought at the beginning of the season that Larsson would be paired with long-time running-mate Zemgus Girgensons. As training camp progressed, it seemed more and more likely that this would be the case. The question was, with whom would they be paired? First-year head coach Ralph Krueger decided it would be veteran right-winger, Kyle Okposo to join them. Most fans rolled their eyes at the theoretical afterthoughts joining forces on Buffalo’s bottom unit. So far, they’ve been proven wrong.

The line, which has been referred to as several things, including the LOG line, the GOL line, and my personal favorite, The Roaring 20’s. (A nod to the 1920’s decade of the same name, as well as the tens-place-numbered digit to start each of their jersey numbers) The line has been excellent on all fronts so far this year. They’ve accounted for seven points in six games, though Kyle Okposo does play on the second power-play unit.

Each player on the line boasts a gaudy Corsi For %, with Okposo sitting at 65%, which is tops in the NHL, Larsson is at 64%, good for 8th in the league, and Girgensons a “paltry” 61%, which places him at 17th on the circuit. Thus, roughly 63% of all shot attempts that occur with these three players on the ice are going in Buffalo’s favor. These are numbers that have been drawing rave reviews from teammates, coaches, and fans alike. It’s been noted on broadcasts how dominant this line has been 5-on-5 in terms of scoring chances for and against. Their willingness to play a cycle game in the offensive zone has been impressive, but equally so is their willingness to play hard in the defensive zone as well.

No one is saying this success will continue, or even that this unit will stay together all season, given injuries and the usual line juggling in times of struggle. However, this is the role that most Sabres’ fans today are thrilled to have Larsson in. Certainly, it isn’t the top-six scorer that some hoped for back in 2013 when he was acquired, but it’s a role that someone has to play and play well for a team to be a contender. So far, and to this point, Larsson, and his mates from The Roaring ’20s have been equal to the task.


Craig Schutts
Craig Schutts
Millersville Alumni; Life-long Buffalo sports fan; Part-time writer and podcaster until they throw me out!
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