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Johan Larsson returning to Sabres on one-year, $1.55 million contract

General Manager Jason Botterill retained another piece to his roster puzzle Friday when center Johan Larsson signed a one-year contract to return to the Buffalo Sabres next season.

Larsson, 26, will count $1.55 million against the salary cap in 2019-20 after he scored six goals among 14 points with a minus-8 rating in 73 games last season. He joins winger Zemgus Girgensons as the second restricted free agent to sign a qualifying offer this offseason.

The Sabres' other four restricted free agents -- center Evan Rodrigues, defenseman Jake McCabe, goalie Linus Ullmark and winger Remi Elie -- elected salary arbitration and have hearings scheduled in Toronto.

In Larsson, the Sabres retain one of their top penalty killers from last season and one of their better centermen in the faceoff circle. He won 50.7 percent of his 993 draws in 2018-19.

However, the transaction adds to a logjam on the roster.

Excluding Rodrigues and Elie, the Sabres have 18 forwards under contract for next season, including up to nine options at center. As of Friday, the team had only lost wingers Jason Pominville and Alexander Nylander this offseason, and added left winger Jimmy Vesey, left winger Marcus Johansson, center Curtis Lazar and center Jean-Sebastien Dea.

The Sabres have a surplus at left wing and potentially center, though the latter arguably could use a second-line option behind Jack Eichel. Botterill has time to sort out the puzzle, though he soon may be forced to subtract from the roster because he has roughly $5.1 million in cap space to sign four restricted free agents.

In addition to the forward surplus, the Sabres have right-shot defensemen Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Henri Jokiharju, Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, Will Borgen and Casey Fitzgerald under contract for next season.

Larsson should add to the competition at center. He has scored 32 goals among 79 points with a minus-49 rating in 330 games during his six seasons with Buffalo, winning 50.3 percent of his faceoffs during that span.

His greatest impact has come defensively. Larsson logged the third-most shorthanded ice time on the National Hockey League's 12th-best penalty kill last season, winning a team-high 83 faceoffs in those situations.

Usage has contributed to his lack of offensive production. Larsson had only 57 offensive-zone starts at 5-on-5 last season, compared to a team-high 286 in the defensive zone. He ranks second on the team in the latter category over the past three seasons, trailing Ristolainen by 25. For reference, Casey Mittelstadt had only 53 defensive-zone starts last season.

Among Sabres who played at least 72 games with the team in 2018-19, Larsson ranked second in unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts against. He also ranked third on the team in hits (112), eighth in blocked shots (44) and second in total faceoffs (993).

His plus-minus improved by 22 points from 2017-18 to 2018-19, and his 5-on-5 shot attempt differential improved by 7 percent. Barring injury or another acquisition, it is likely Larsson again will work as the Sabres' fourth-line center in 2019-20.

Returning to the Sabres also means Larsson could have the opportunity to play two NHL games in Sweden, his home country, when Buffalo plays Tampa Bay in Stockholm for the Global Series on Nov. 8 and 9.

Larsson captained Sweden to a IIHF World Junior Championship in 2012 and he twice has represented his country at the IIHF World Championship.

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