He was wearing number six in Oiler silks, but the player was almost unrecognizable. The name bar said Larsson, but the playing style said something else. And boy, was his game last night something else.
Adam Larsson was playing in the Swedish Elite League as a teenager, barely old enough to drive a car. In his 16-year-old season, he played in 49 games, scoring 4-13-17 against men. He was going to be one of the next big things in Swedish hockey, another star pumped out of that defenseman factory in Scandinavia. The next year, his draft year, he wasn’t nearly as offensively productive, but he was still good enough to be selected fourth overall by the New Jersey Devils.
We might have taken that down year before the draft as an indication that offense would not be his calling card, or maybe he was just a little unlucky and he played fewer games so injury might have factored in. All we can say for certain is that so far into his 353 game NHL career, he didn’t turn into an offensive driver the way some might have dreamed about when he put up crooked numbers as a 16-year-old.
When the Oilers traded for him, Peter Chiarelli didn’t promise offensive contributions. He didn’t highlight his shot or even his passing. He spoke about a guy who could play 25 minutes a night of heavy hockey and hold his own. A heavy price was paid for this. In order to fill the gaping hole on the right side of the ice, the Oilers parted ways with an offensive driver who excelled at keeping possession. Primary attacker for complementary defender. We can debate the merits of the deal until the Sun expands and swallows the planet whole. We won’t.
During the regular season, Larsson played the role of stay at home defender and seemed content doing so. He had 19 points, just six of which were primary points 5v5. He was measured by many not by his accomplishments, but by what his partner Klefbom was able to do. Klefbom was good, but Larsson allowed him to be. Things of that nature. He wasn’t the 25 minute a night blueliner some had envisioned. He was fourth on the Oiler blue in time on ice per game, never once surpassing 25 minutes a night during the regular season. He wasn’t used heavily on the PK and not at all on the PP. Nonetheless, he was unquestionably a solid defender and a welcome addition to a team that needed more defensively responsible (and NHL calibre) defensemen.
What the Oilers got out of Adam Larsson last night was not typical of his contributions on a nightly basis. That was not the Adam Larsson hockey we have come to expect thus far in his Oiler career. Instead, what the Oilers got last night was an incredible performance from the normally meat-and-potatoes defender at both ends of the ice. He was skating the puck up the ice. He was greasy in the corners. And he scored a goal from the high slot like an honest to goodness offensive defenseman.
Larsson earned that player of the game vest with the first ever multi-goal game of his NHL career, a three-point night, and absolutely solid defending in his own zone. In addition to scoring those highlight reel goals, he was also the best Oiler player via shot attempt metrics. Territorially, the Oilers were best when Larsson was on the ice in game one.
What’s most striking about Larsson’s playing style, typically, is how mean he is. He’s the kind of defender that makes forwards thankful for their second kidneys because that stick is making contact with the lower back three or four times in a couple seconds at the front of the net. There are greasy elbows and sneaky hits along the walls. He’s no smooth euro defender with impeccable skating and an eye for the open man.
What was most striking about that whale of a game he played last night was that he played outside of his regular boundaries. He joined the attack and buried a goal from the slot. He used his feet to transport the puck on an end-to-end rush that paid homage to the great attacking defensemen of the game — a veritable end-to-end rush that culminated in the game winner!
Who was that player wearing number six for the Oilers last night? Has he been here the whole time? Adam Larsson has been content to play a quiet yet reliable game for the Edmonton Oilers through the majority of his time here. Surely for the majority of his NHL career. It was a damned welcome sight to see him take the driver seat when the opportunity arose. He may yet have more to offer than maybe even he is comfortable to provide.
GEAR UP FOR THE PLAYOFFS
If you’re down in Anaheim, head over to Violent Gentlemen HQ today (Thursday) from 4-7PM for some NationGear (including new grey game day tee), some new VG releases, a fantastic food truck, and neutral grounds to discuss the playoffs with some fellow fans.