The Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils pulled off one of the biggest and most surprising trades in recent sports history last week when the Oilers swapped star winger Taylor Hall for the young defenseman Adam Larsson.
— NHL (@NHL) June 29, 2016
The move was shocking for several reasons, the most prominent of which being that Hall — a truly elite forward and former No. 1 draft pick — was traded straight-up for a largely unproven defenseman who has yet to give much of an indication that he will be a positive investment for Edmonton.
Meanwhile, New Jersey initially looks to have won this trade in quite a decisive fashion. Hall is an electric offensive player who has scored 233 points in his last 255 games since the start of the 2012 season. But everyone already knows the kind of player that the Devils just acquired in Hall: a cornerstone forward capable of instantly improving any team’s offensive performance on a nightly basis. The real question mark in this trade is the man Hall was traded for, Adam Larsson.
When looking at Larsson, it’s important to remember that his true ability is not influenced by the talent that he was just traded for. The fact that two general managers (actually, probably just Pete Chiarelli) subjectively thought that Larsson was just as valuable an asset as Hall does not mean that is actually the case. As such, any analysis of Larsson as a hockey player must be done independent of the trade that he was just involved in. Therefore, just because Larsson was traded for a very good hockey player actually doesn’t mean that he too is a very good hockey player.
With that established, we are now able to analyze the player Edmonton just acquired for one of their core athletes. For me, doing so usually starts with looking at a player usage chart to get an idea of the circumstances a player was in when they registered their other statistics. Since the 2015-16 season was Larsson’s first as a top-pair player for New Jersey, the below chart only considers that season (chart from Corsica.hockey).
Larsson was actually trusted with quite the workload last season while playing on New Jersey’s top pair alongside Andy Greene. The duo formed the only true shutdown pairing New Jersey was able to deploy for most of the season, evidenced by the frequency with which they played against top competition and with unfavorable zone deployments. Their possession metrics were predictably a little on the low side, but the fact that Larsson was able to play a full season with such tough match-ups says a lot about his ability as a shutdown defender.
It is also worth noting that the relative size of his respective circle on the chart indicates that he played the most 5v5 time of any Devils defenseman, an important indicator of the trust John Hynes had in him as a young player.
However, the lack of experience on the New Jersey blue line may have also contributed to Larsson’s increase in ice time. Additionally, it would be foolish to equate quantity of minutes played to quality of performance for any player, and the previously mentioned poor possession metrics that the defenseman posted raise questions about his actual execution as a shutdown player last season. Hurting his case a little more is the -16 individual penalty differential he posted in 2015-16, a figure that will surely need to be improved if he hopes to continue in a shutdown role with Edmonton.
On the plus side, he did have the second best xGF% at 5v5 of regular Devils’ defensemen according to Corsica.hockey. All of these conflicting stats on Larsson’s performance make evaluating him as a player all the more difficult, but the quality of competition he faced and the xGF% he posted are both promising points that suggest he could develop into a very good player with time.
The last major area of Larsson’s game I wanted to look at is his offense. The Devils had a borderline anemic offense last season while scoring the fewest goals in the entire league, so judging Larsson’s offensive ability strictly on the underwhelming 18 points he posted wouldn’t be fair to him as a player. That point total was good for fourth amongst Devils’ defenders last season, but there are variables other than points that go into determining how effective a player is offensively.
Unfortunately for Larsson though, looking at those other stats paints a relatively similar picture of his work in the attacking zone. For example, he was also fourth amongst regular Devils’ defensemen in iCor/60 — the number of corsi1 events for the individual player per 60 minutes — according to puckalytics.com, and he wasn’t all that close to the three players that finished ahead of him (John Moore, Damon Severson, and David Schlemko). Overall, he could be doing much more to create goals for his team when he’s on the ice, although a further look at the areas in which he took shots and how effective he was on zone entries would help create a clearer picture of what he is capable of.
Overall, judging Larsson on the fact that he was traded straight-up for Taylor Hall is fairly irrelevant in determining what kind of player the young defenseman really is. The trade has already happened, and now the Oilers must move forward with the most objective view of Larsson that they can have; the cost of acquiring him should not matter in any of their evaluations.
As for the most current evaluation of Larsson that can be made, his past performance both answers and creates questions about his chances of stepping in and leading Edmonton’s ailing blue line. On one hand, he has already established that he is a very solid defenseman capable of taking on top competition and playing heavy minutes with decent results. On the other hand, it has yet to be determined whether or not his large minutes were more the result of the Devils not having any other defensemen, or his play on the ice. Additionally, his lack of offense may limit his ceiling and make him a more one-dimensional player than a true top-pairing defenseman should be.
With all of this in mind, I think it is fair to say that the Oilers have acquired a rare young player coming off his best season as a pro with the potential to develop into a true workhorse for a team looking to improve dramatically over the next few seasons. Whether or not he reaches his massive potential is now up to him and the rest of the Oilers organization, while a now infamous trade is the reason they have this opportunity.
shots, shots that are blocked, and shots that were not on net ↩