There was a reason the Buffalo Sabres wanted Johan Larsson to be a part of their deal to send Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild: He's “tough to play against.”
The Swedish prospect spent a stretch with in Buffalo this season and performed very well in terms of puck possession, but only managed one assist in 21 game. Some of his scoring shortage could be because of a lack of ice time, high number of defensive minutes, zero power play time and poor linemates – but there was still room for improvement when he was sent back down to the Rochester Americans.
In Rochester, he's made great strides, becoming a force on Rochester's top line and special teams. Larsson has terrific statistics with 19 points in 20 games and plus-8. More importantly to his future projection – which is likely a third-line winger – the Swedish forward has shown explosive skating, physical play in the corners, open ice checking and top level intelligence.
“He is our best 200-foot player,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “He's a guy who can play against anyone in the league and hold his own. This is exactly the situation he needs to be in here.”
On Wednesday night, the Amerks were back at Blue Cross Arena for the first time since Jan. 10. In their first match-up of the year against the Chicago Wolves, the Amerks won 4-1 and received a terrific performance from their prospect center.
Larsson did not score a goal. He created one with a quick jab of the stick as the Wolves were exiting the zone by knocking it loose from defenseman Taylor Chorney right to the stick of linemate Alex Hutchings. Seconds later, the Amerks were up 2-1 on a breakaway goal.
“He's got a great stick and he's really strong on it,” Cassidy said. “He makes a lot of plays like that. Watch how many times through the neutral zone where he picks a guy's pocket and we'll be transitioning the other way or when in the D-zone where he'll lift a stick, make a quick turn and we'll get out of the zone quickly.”
“Hockey isn't just about points,” Larsson said. “You have to play good defense and in be good in certain situations. I think the whole team has been good there and gotten some points.”
The very next shift, Larsson laid a booming hit near center ice.
“He didn't see that coming from me, eh?” Larsson said with a smile.
The new Buffalo regime has made it pretty clear they would rather have prospects like Larsson in the minors developing rather than going with trail by fire in the NHL. For the former second-rounder, the big-time minutes have been beneficial to growing his overall game.
“He's a subtle player,” Cassidy said. “He's a guy who you can play against anyone's top line and that should probably be what he's molded into as an NHL'er. A guy like Richards in L.A. that you put out there in the most important parts of the game and he's going to find a way to execute.”
Nathan Lieuwen is a quiet competitor. The tall, polite former sixth-round pick wasn't expected to carry much of the load for the Amerks this season, but he's worked his way into a 50-50 split with Matt Hackett and maybe more if he continues to play this well.
The Amerks' young goalie has won four of his last five starts and has a .945 save percentage in that stretch. In total this season, he is 9-6-1 with a terrific .923 save percentage.
Why has he been so good? The mental side of his game, for one. Lieuwen allowed a goal just 0:15 into Wednesday night's game – a shot the netminder felt he could have stopped.
Lieuwen didn't allow another puck past him.
“That's a great mental challenge for a goalie,” he said. “First shot of the game, get scored on. Then you have to say, 'OK that's it.' Then just get the next one and next one and next one.”
Certainly the return of Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb helped Lieuwen's cause, but his string of good games started while they were in Buffalo.
The Amerks' coach acknowledged the improved defense, but said he's been impressed with his netminder's makeup.
“He's cool as a cucumber,” Cassidy said. “He doesn't let a whole lot bother him. There have been very few incidents this year where he's had a meltdown in net. He's a competitor, too. I remember talking to him after he had a rough night and I explained why I didn't pull him. He said 'I don't ever want you to pull me.' That tells you a lot about him.”
-- Kevin Porter may not end up being a trade target for anyone at the deadline, but he should be. The Amerks' top center has blown away the AHL since being sent back down, scoring nine goals in 16 games. His NHL even-strength scoring rates and skating ability might make him a fourth-line asset for a team in need of depth. If he isn't moved, the Amerks' coaching staff will be crossing their fingers that he stats in Rochester after the deadline.
-- McNabb and Pysyk are a pretty awesome pair to watch against AHL competition. Pysyk's intelligence and passing is far above the AHL level, which McNabb's size and outstanding shot are always a threat. They both may end up in the NHL for the final stretch – and a promotion would be deserved.
-- Alex Hutchings has been key to the Amerks staying above water during ups and downs. He scored on a breakaway and made several strong plays defensively. He's a great skater and a nice find off a PTO for the Amerks.
-- Luke Adam didn't make a huge impact on Wednesday's game offensive, but he played a stronger defensive game than we've seen at times in the past. Adam has been scoring goals like crazy for the Amerks with 18 in 27 games.
-- The Sabres have been rumored to be in trade talks with the Blues for....like...awhile. The notable prospects from Wednesday's game were Ty Rattie and Jani Hakanpaa. Rattie is a quick offensive winger with good offensive instincts. The Blues' top prospect Dmitrji Jaskin was underwhelming, creating little in the offensive end, including several bad turnovers and lost wall battles.
-- Joel Armia did not play. He's still having trouble with a hand injury that kept him out earlier this season.
-- Rasmus Ristolainen had a quietly good game. Was solid with the puck and physical