Dan Bylsma wanted to get acquainted with his new team during the summer, so he called a few buddies in the coaching fraternity and asked about players. One of the guys who came up in the discussions was Johan Larsson.
The coaches had faced the Sabres late last season, right about the time Larsson started to excel. They praised the center’s skills and style of play.
“They liked him a lot,” Bylsma said Thursday. “They thought he played a hard, kind of a sandpaper, gritty game. They scouted him as such. That’s what he’s going to bring to the table. Hard to play against, and that’s what he’s got to bring for our team.”
Bylsma says the summer scouting report on Larsson has been accurate and welcome.
“He’s been excellent in practice for the first couple days,” Bylsma said. “I’ve really liked him, and I liked his game a lot.”
Larsson led all Buffalo forwards in playing time during the preseason opener, recording one assist and a plus-2 rating in 17:53 of ice time during a 3-2 win in Minnesota. Larsson will play his second exhibition game this weekend, either Friday night in Toronto or Saturday in Ottawa.
“I’ve felt good in this camp,” Larsson said after practice in HarborCenter. “I can only take it day by day, but I feel comfortable here. I feel comfortable with the new staff and everything.”
Larsson is confident he can carve out a niche in Buffalo after an impressive finish to last season. He rose to the top line after trades and injuries thinned an already weak roster, and he took advantage. Larsson had five goals and 13 points in the final 17 games, impressive numbers considering he had just one goal and seven points in his 51 NHL games before that.
“I got the opportunity to play with good players, so that helped,” said Larsson, who skated between Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis. “I got a little more ice time, and the confidence came. It was rolling.
“It helped me a lot, gave me a lot of confidence than I can play in this league at that level. It was kind of huge for me having that in my head.”
The hard-driving effort that the opposing coaches liked has been on display whenever Larsson takes the ice. During Thursday’s skate, his legs were churning at both ends of the rink as he skated between left wing Nicolas Deslauriers and right wing Marcus Foligno.
David Legwand held that fourth-line role at the start of camp, but Larsson has since moved up the center depth chart.
“It’s a competition for everybody with the new staff and new coach,” Deslauriers said. “Nobody’s safe. It’s a longer training camp with more exhibition games, and basically you just prove yourself. Larsson’s in that situation – I consider myself in that situation, too – and you’ve just got to be good every time. It’s not just once. You have to be good even in practice. It’s just working as hard as you can.
“He’s a great player. He works hard.”
The arrival of Bylsma gave every player a clean slate. Though Larsson and former coach Ted Nolan ended on a high note, they had an up-and-down relationship. After a midseason demotion to Rochester, Larsson questioned whether he had a future in Buffalo.
The ensuing spat with Nolan taught Larsson to just work hard and make the best of any situation. The lesson should benefit the 23-year-old this year. While he currently has a place in the Sabres’ lineup, it could change with impressive showings by fellow centers Legwand and Tim Schaller or a return to health by Cody McCormick.
No matter what happens, Larsson says he’ll maintain his focus and composure. After all, he knows he can have success in the NHL.
“You’ve got to keep your head up,” Larsson said. “We’ve got a lot of depth here and a lot of competition. Even if you’re not in the lineup you’ve got to keep working. There’s going to be a chance.”