Quick, name the Dallas Stars defensemen who is third at the position in hits on the team right now.
If you said Philip Larsen, you went to check the statistics or read the title of this article. Nice job.
Either way, the development of the young defensemen, from his physical play to his all-around performance, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. The young Dane entered the year eighth on the depth chart after the Stars brought back five players from last year and signed Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray as free agents.
But injuries early in the year gave Larsen his first shot for a long NHL stint, and while he has certainly had some growing pains, he is going through those in a way that gives fans a lot of hope for his long-term development. Unlike some defensive prospects in recent memory, Larsen typically does not make the same mistake twice, and he goes about his business with a quiet calmness that gives a lot of confidence to those playing around him.
Like any young defensemen, he has a ways to go, and he is playing some of the easiest minutes on the team, but his development curve to this point has been extremely positive.
Some examples of Larsen's solid play recent, how he's been able to learn from his mistakes and what his next step will be after the jump.
One of the best indications of how quickly Larsen has settled into the NHL is how little has been said about him this year.
When he was called up in mid-November after Alex Goligoski broke his thumb, Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said this about the young Dane and their time together in the AHL.
"Offensively he was just OK for us last year. Defensively he was really good," said Gulutzan. "He was a way better defender than you think he is. He competes, he’s hard, he’s attentive to detail, he can close on guys quick with that speed and he’s got a good stick. When he went down I told him it’s the offensive part of your game – he needed to get more shots through, be better on the line, have a little more patience offensively. He needed to shoot the puck more; he was always looking for the pretty play. He’s been working on that and he’s got better numbers than he had with me. I think the next step in his progression is to play in the NHL."
Really, that's about the only significant quote about Larsen this season, other than some more generic offerings after games.
It took a while for Larsen to really step into a full-time role in Dallas, and he's been hampered by a serious quad contusion and a concussion, but since his return to the lineup from that concussion on Jan. 21, he's taken a large step forward. He has one goal and four assists and is a +3. Even more impressive, perhaps, are his 23 blocked shots (including four in Friday's win over the Oilers) and 38 hits.
And his play on both ends of the ice has earned him a regular spot in the rotation over the likes of Mark Fistric and Adam Pardy, even before Nicklas Grossman was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Perhaps the biggest reason he's stayed in the lineup is his ability to learn quickly.
For example, several weeks ago, the Stars gave up the game-winning goal to the Los Angeles Kings when Larsen, Goligoski and Mike Ribeiro had a communication failure in front of the net. Ribeiro assumed Larsen would be in front of the net when releasing a Kings forward, but Larsen had anticipated Goligoski would win his puck battle on the wall and darted behind the net for an outlet pass. Unfortunately for all of them, Goligoski lost the puck battle and it was quickly moved to the open King in the low slot for an easy goal.
Now, every young defenseman makes mistakes. But what impressed me about Larsen was a very similar situation happened in the next game, with his partner in a puck battle on the side boards and an opposing forward cutting down toward the slot. Instead of trying to make the aggressive play and be open for an outlet pass, Larsen made the safe, smart play by guarding the front of the net until possession had been clearly secured. Then, and only then, did he leave the front of the net.
That type of quick learning is something young defensemen often struggle with. Not to pick on Matt Niskanen, but he made the same 3-4 mistakes over and over and over again, his confidence noticeably shrinking each time. Early returns on Larsen say that won't be a problem with him. Composure and positional smarts matter much, much more with young defensemen than they do with forwards, where many low-minute guys can get by on hustle and sheer strength of will. Larsen has demonstrated an ample measure of both of those.
Larsen has also added a new dimension to his game with his physical play. As I mentioned above, Larsen is second among defensemen on the Stars with 71 hits, behind Fistric and Stephane Robidas. The raw number is less important, since hits are counted differently in each arena, but the trend, where he has more hits than Sheldon Souray, is definitely relevant.
With a frame generously listed at 6-foot-1, 183 pounds, his hits aren't going to break someone in half. But his ability to win a board battle is a very nice addition to his game at the NHL level. If he can fill out his 22-year-old frame a little bit over the next few years, it might be another weapon he can add to his already stocked arsenal.
There are a lot of positives about Larsen, but they all have to be put in the context of his minutes. He is playing the third easiest minutes of any regular defenseman this season relative to his quality of competition, just ahead of Pardy and Fistric, and he receives only nominal penalty killing time.
That's not a criticism. Indeed, I'm a firm believer in bringing young players, particularly defensemen, along slowly in order to maximize their confidence and chances of long-term success. But he's still very early in his NHL career with a lot of growth left in front of him.
If early returns are any indication, that career will be a long one.