The Buffalo Sabres clearly like young players who have had success in European pro leagues. No. 1 draft pick Rasmus Ristolainen has a game far beyond the normal 18-year-old thanks to his time against older players in Finland and the hope is that 2011 top choice Joel Armia, also from Finland, will start to show that kind of skill as he acclimates to North America.
The trade of captain Jason Pominville to Minnesota last April brought a similar prospect in center Johan Larsson, a former Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League.
The Sabres need centers, especially ones that can stuff the stat sheet. Larsson is an intriguing prospect who did exactly that in Thursday’s 5-2 win over Carolina in First Niagara Center.
He’ll get another chance this weekend, as the Sabres host the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at 7 (Ch. 5 & NHLN, Radio 550 AM) and play them Sunday night in Air Canada Centre.
Larsson played 15 minutes, 44 seconds Thursday, including 3:51 of penalty kill time. He scored twice while posting a game-high seven shots on goal and also went 12-5 on faceoffs.
“It’s good for your confidence, real good,” said Larsson, 21. “I’ve played two games before and feel pretty good. I had some chances in those but I was lucky to get them again and score, so it was nice.”
The 5-foot-11, 206-pound Larsson showed plenty of willingness to compete for loose pucks and drove the Hurricanes crazy while killing a first-period penalty and keeping the puck in the Carolina zone.
“He’s just feisty out there, strong all over it,” said coach Ron Rolston. “He’s got quick hands. The one penalty kill when we needed it and got down ice, he disrupted things.
“Those are things we’re looking for out of centermen,” Rolston said. “He’s got a lot of grit in his game. He’s strong, he’s put together and that helps him on the ice over pucks. We’re just going to see him continue to grow here. He’s getting more comfortable.”
Larsson was Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2010, taken 56th overall. He was the captain for Sweden when it won the World Junior Championships in 2012 in Calgary with an overtime win over Russia, the Swedes’ first gold medal since 1981.
Playing for Brynas IF, Larsson was named Rookie of the Year in the Swedish League in 2011-12 after collecting 12 goals and 36 points in 49 games.
The award has a huge pedigree of winners who have gone on to big NHL careers. Just since 2001, the list includes Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom, Boston’s Loui Eriksson, Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and Florida’s Jacob Markstrom.
Larsson had 15 goals and 22 assists in 62 games last year for Houston of the AHL when he learned he had been dealt to Buffalo.
“It was a shock. It was my first year over here and you’re not familiar with all that happens with trades coming over from Europe,” he said. “Everything happened so fast. It was kind of shocking but I’ve learned how much of a good opportunity this is. They wanted me and I’m trying to do my best and see what happens.”
Heading into Friday’s play, the Sabres’ seven goals from rookies were the most in the NHL thus far in the preaseason.
“There’s a lot of young guys here but that’s how it is overall in the league now too it seems,” Larsson said. “There may be a few more here and it’s a good group of guys. We push each other. There’s good battles. You had to work hard in the summer to improve every day.”
Larsson appears ticketed for a major role in Rochester but the Sabres are thin down the middle. More games like Thursday will thrust him deeper into the conversation about the Sabres’ final roster.
“We’re going to continue looking at all options,” Rolston said. “Whether it’s young guys, moving guys around, whatever is going to be the best scenario for the team.”
The Sabres had their first mass cutdown of the fall Friday, starting to build the core of the Amerks.
Sent down to the AHL club were forwards Colin Jacobs, Eric Locke, Johnny McGuire, Jonathan Parker, Frederick Roy, Kevin Sundher and Shawn Szydlowski; defensemen Matt MacKenzie and Alex Lepkowski, a West Seneca native; and goalies Connor Knapp and Nathan Lieuwen. Defenseman Nick Crawford was also sent down, but must first clear waivers.
Returned to junior teams were defenseman Brady Austin and forward Peter Trainor. The Sabres are now down to 42 players and have essentially cut the camp roster from three teams to two. They must be at 23 by Sept. 30.
Rolston was not prepared to name tonight’s goalie, saying only it would be Jhonas Enroth or Matt Hackett. The choice will play the whole game.
The Amerks will open training camp Monday at 10 a.m. at Blue Cross Arena and play a preseason game Wednesday night at 7 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at Bill Gray’s Regional Iceplex, located on the campus of Monroe Community College. Tickets are $5 and available at the Iceplex or Blue Cross Arena.