When defenseman Adam Larsson was drafted fourth overall by the New Jersey Devils, it appeared to be a match made in heaven. The Devils had their first top ten pick since 1996, and having the talented Swede, who at one point was favored to go first overall, drop to them was a gift. Under former head coach Peter DeBoer, however, Larsson couldn’t put his game together. Since the coaching change, however, he looks like a new player.
Larsson was drafted with the projection that he would be a two-way defenseman with a flair for offense. In his rookie season, he played relatively well before an injury hampered his progress. He only played five playoff games for New Jersey during their run to the Stanley Cup final. His second and third years were accompanied by two 33-game stints in the AHL, and other defensive prospects, such as Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas, looked to be surpassing Larsson on the depth chart.
The Devils gave the Swedish blue-liner a cheap, one-year contract to prove himself worthy of a high pick. DeBoer still didn’t have the confidence to put him in the lineup on a consistent basis, and it seemed as though one mistake would send him back to the press box. Larsson watched as his fellow young defenders Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Damon Severson got playing time ahead of him, in addition to the veterans, some of which didn’t deserve the ice time.
With New Jersey out of the playoff picture and the team struggling, GM Lou Lamoriello had seen enough. DeBoer was canned, with Scott Stevens and Adam Oates acting as co-head coaches. Stevens gave Larsson a vote of confidence, and it appears to have paid dividends. His offensive numbers aren’t sparkling — he only has nine points in 29 games — but it’s the rest of his game that has taken off. Larsson’s ice time has risen dramatically as he is now logging over 20 minutes a game, while playing on both specialty units. His physical play has increased too, and he has morphed into a solid two-way defenseman.
Adam Larsson’s situation is very much a lesson on how to develop players. The young gun stepped into the NHL at the age of 18 after two solid seasons playing in Sweden’s top league. Confidence is always crucial, but to a youthful player, it’s everything. Newcomers to the NHL are going to make mistakes, and they are especially glaring if they are playing defense or goaltending. Punishing players for every single error is counterproductive, especially in the modern NHL where teaching and communication are key.
For New Jersey, their defensive core is shaping up nicely thanks to Larsson, Merrill, Gelinas and Severson. If all goes well in their development, the Devils have the makings of a very good blueline. Adam Larsson may not be the flashiest guy, or put up the numbers that some expected him to, but his game has become so much more than that. Being trusted to play big minutes every night against the top players in the game is no small feat, and teams crave individuals like that. The 22-year old defenseman has the tools, and now the confidence, to be a top defender — now it’s time for him to prove it.
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