It’s no secret the New Jersey Devils want to improve their defense this offseason. They already got things started late last week when they acquired Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche. Graves will surely add some mobility and edge to the Devils’ blue line, but they still have work to do. They’ll likely be keeping an eye on the trade market, but free agency is an option as well.
One free agent who general manager Tom Fitzgerald could consider is an old friend in Adam Larsson. On the most recent episode of DFO Rundown (about 21 minutes in), Frank Seravalli stated it seems unlikely that Larsson and the Edmonton Oilers would reach an agreement before free agency begins on July 28. If true, Larsson could be the exact type of defenseman the Devils are looking to add. Let’s dive into why that’s the case.
Larsson a True Shutdown Defender
The Devils need a bit of everything on the back end. They need puck-movers, but they could also use defensemen capable of handling hard minutes. Graves does cover a bit of both, which is a plus, but Fitzgerald still has work to do. If they were to sign Larsson, he’d strictly check off the need for a defenseman who’s proven he can handle playing against opponents’ top lines.
Larsson is limited offensively and is not an elite all-around defender or puck-mover. But his play against elite competition since the Oilers traded for him has been rock solid. On the surface, his numbers probably won’t catch your eye. He has a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 48.1 percent and expected goals percentage of 47.97 percent since the start of the 2018-19 season. That’s nothing to write home about, but his impact and value defensively have been positive over that stretch.
Larsson’s even-strength defense has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 10.1 since the start of the 2018-19 season. That ranks him 27th in the league among defensemen, putting him ahead of Hampus Lindholm, Mark Giordano and Jakob Chychrun. Those three are much better two-way blueliners than Larsson, but his defensive ability is right there with the best of them.
The Oilers clearly trusted Larsson to play hard minutes too. He logged 32 to 35 percent of his minutes against elite competition in each of the last three seasons. And his best results came in 2020-21, as he posted a 50.1 CF% against elite competition (per PuckIQ). Overall, he’s had a strong positive impact defensively, though it’s been quite the opposite on offense:
The lack of offense is the biggest knock on Larsson. He’s a below-average puck-moving defenseman, so he’ll need to be paired with a high-end puck-mover wherever he plays next. But even with the lack of offense, he’d certainly give the Devils a right-handed defender who can handle tough minutes, something they haven’t had in quite some time.
It’s also worth noting Larsson’s ability to kill penalties. He was one of the Oilers’ best shot suppressors in terms of quality and quantity on the penalty kill, something the Devils’ penalty kill could use. Add Larsson and Graves to the Devils’ penalty kill unit, and it should trend in the right direction in 2021-22.
What Larsson Could Cost in Free Agency
Dougie Hamilton is the top free-agent defenseman available this summer. He’s a right-handed shot who has elite offensive ability but is also a pretty decent defender. It’s going to cost quite a bit to sign him, but he’s well worth the price. Could the Devils end up being his choice? Other teams like the Seattle Kraken — who Seravalli mentioned are all-in on Hamilton — will be lining up for him too. Will the Devils be able to sell him over other suitors? Time will tell, but if they can’t, they’ll have to resort to a plan B.
And that plan B could be Larsson. The question with him is, how much will he cost as a UFA? Let’s look at a couple of contract projections, starting with Evolving-Hockey. They predict Larsson will land a five-year deal at a cap hit of $4.11 million as a UFA. That cap hit is more than manageable, even though he lacks offensive upside. With that said, five years might be a bit more than the Devils are willing to dish out for him. He turns 29 in November, meaning he’ll be approaching age 34 when a five-year deal expires in July 2026.
Can Larsson maintain his high level of defensive play over a five-year deal? Here’s what Dom Luszczyszyn had to say about him over at The Athletic when previewing this summer’s top free agents:
“[Larsson’s] aging profile is relatively steady, though, which is a good sign that he should be able to keep contributing defensively for a few years, as long as you can stomach the lack of offence”
(From ‘Top 50 NHL UFAs: From Dougie Hamilton and Gabriel Landeskog to Alex Wennberg and Nikita Gusev,’ The Athletic – 7/14/2021).
That leads us to Luszczysnzyn’s contract projection, which predicts Larsson will land a four-year deal at a cap hit of $3.4 million. If that’s what he’ll cost, then the Devils should be very much looking to a reunion with the Swedish defender. They’re $10,220,001 million below the salary cap floor, so going up from that predicted price of $3.4 million a year shouldn’t be an issue if they have to do so. Four years seems like the right cut-off for the Devils if they’re to consider signing Larsson as well. Term is the key in any UFA deal; it always ends up being the killer if you give out too much of it. So shaving off a year could make a difference for someone who’ll be in his 30s for a majority of the contract.
Larsson is obviously not the all-around defender Hamilton is, but he’s still a fit for the Devils. He’s a right-handed shot who can play hard minutes at even strength and kill penalties, which are significant needs for the team. He’s quite limited offensively, but the Devils have a couple of puck-moving options to consider as his partner, most notably Ty Smith. If they can keep a UFA deal at four years or less, then a reunion seems plausible. Because with Larsson in the mix alongside Smith, Graves and Damon Severson, the team’s top two defense pairs should see much improvement in 2021-22.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017