The Buffalo Sabres have announced they’ve signed their first restricted free agent of the 2015-16 offseason. Center Johan Larsson has inked a one-year deal. According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Larsson will earn $950,000 this season, up from an average annual value of $800,000 from his previous contract.
Larsson had the best season of his young career, though this was the first full season he spent in the NHL. Prior to this year, he spent a season and a half going back and forth between Buffalo and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans.
He had a slow start to the season, but came alive after earning an expanded role with the team when Ryan O’Reilly missed time due to injury. He finished with 17 points – 10 goals, seven assists – netting five game winning goals for the Sabres, which tied Jack Eichel for the highest mark on the team.
Larsson’s greatest impact may have been his faceoff acumen. With O’Reilly out of the lineup, Larsson was frequently called upon to take late draws, especially in Buffalo’s defensive zone.
One of Buffalo’s most dependable role players, as the season came to a close there were questions regarding his status with the team. With his first contract expiring, it wasn’t certain that he’d earned a spot on the team.
Complicating issues is the plethora of young players currently with the Sabres. Justin Bailey, for instance, had a solid first season in the AHL. He played 70 games for Rochester, scoring 45 points (20G, 25A.) He played eight games for Buffalo in 2015-16, and though he was unable to match the scoring stats he had for the Sabres’ farm club, Bailey performed well in his short stint in the NHL.
The big-bodied rookie was solid defensively for a team that lacked decent possession; Bailey finished the season fifth on the team in cumulative Corsi differential.
Second on the Sabres in this possession stat was Minnesota standout Hudson Fasching. Fasching was the Golden Gophers’ most prolific scorer in his junior season, and led Minnesota to the 2015-16 Big 10 championship. In his seven games with Buffalo, he was a distinct physical presence. Despite his youth, he proved he had the strength to contend with even the league’s most powerful defensemen.
Neither Bailey nor Fasching is a natural center, but Buffalo isn’t short on players who can fill that slot. Both young forwards have the size to compete physically in the same way that Larsson has in his time in Buffalo, and both appear to have a bit more offensive upside than Larsson.
Scoring will be key for the Sabres next season, as they suffered through yet another season scoring fewer than 200 goals. Puck possession was an obvious flaw in Buffalo’s scoring issues, and both Bailey and Fasching have demonstrated that they can excel at it, though their collective sample size is small.
Ultimately, Larsson’s return isn’t too surprising. Even with young, quality talent nipping at his heels, Larsson does offer the Sabres one commodity Bailey nor Fasching can — experience. Plus, general manager Tim Murray has made a commitment to icing a quality roster in Rochester.
Re-signing Larsson allows Bailey and possibly Fasching to play top line minutes on an Amerks team that has been stretched thin by the Sabres dependence upon their skilled youth. Plus Larsson gets one more year to prove his worth as both the NHL and AHL teams attempt to make even more progress next year.