Victor Hedman vs. Adam Larsson
After last week’s question that no one was asking let’s try one that everyone is asking – Adam Larsson or Victor Hedman? That might be hyperbole but the reality is that this is a question many have asked, will ask and are asking now. In fact, this question was posed in the DobberHockey forum just in the last week alone.
With players so young and raw but clearly talented there are obviously many layers to this question. Who is better now? Who will be better in three years? What about five?
Let’s focus on our first couple of questions and then offer up some suggestions for what may be coming down the road. Who is better now?
Answering this goes hand in hand with answering who has the better opportunity because these guys haven’t just been handed NHL jobs. They’ve earned them and it’s safe to say the better of the two would surely be earning a better opportunity in terms of minutes (especially power play time).
You ultimately have to say that Hedman is the better of the two right now. First off, look at his production in the KHL this season. In 23 games with Astana Barys Hedman has scored just one goal but has piled on the assists with 19. It is a small sample size but it is also a very impressive showing. Compare Hedman’s numbers to Larsson’s this season in the AHL where he has just two goals but also a respectable nine assists in 20 games and Hedman appears to come out ahead.
But does he really? As said before sample size is a factor but there are a number of other reasons why you might want to prop up or tear down Hedman’s performance. The first is the idea that European leagues tend to award fewer assists than North American leagues do. If this is true then Hedman’s assist performance this season is even more impressive, but is it true?
According to this article as well as some older stuff that theory is true. European league’s really do award fewer assists per goal than North American league’s and tangibly so. The first article is from 2011 so it may be a bit dated but it quotes a league average of 1.53 assists per goal, while the NHL and AHL award assists at a rate closer to 1.70 per goal. That’s highly significant given how many thousands of goals are scored each year. In this season alone 2332 goals have been scored in the KHL, while 2002 have been scored in the AHL. That means we are talking about nearly 400 missing assists and that’s just with less than half a season played.
But it’s not enough to just say that the KHL is stingy with assists. One must also ask if the KHL is higher scoring than the AHL. It isn’t, but we still had to ask. The average goals per game in the KHL is 5.61 while in the AHL it is 5.78. Over the course of a full year that is significant, but again not enough to conclude that Hedman’s assists are more impressive. No, for that we must go one step further and analyze the actual teams that these two play for.
Hedman suits up for Astana Barys a middle of the pack team in the KHL but also one of the higher scoring teams in the KHL. They have scored 104 goals in 33 games this season good for an average of 3.15 goals per game. Larsson, on the other hand, plays for the bottom-feeding Albany Devils, the team with the worst record in the AHL and the second fewest goals scored. Albany has scored just 44 goals in 20 games good for an average of 2.2 goals per game. Larsson is a part of his low-scoring team just like Hedman is a part of his high-scoring team.
There is an argument to be made that Hedman is the reason that his team is scoring so much. Since landing Hedman, Astana Barys has scored 80 goals in 23 games an average of 3.48 per game but before he arrived Astana Barys was averaging just 2.4 goals in the 10 games they had played. I’ll keep saying it but sample size is clearly a factor here but it would appear that Hedman has had an extremely positive impact on his team’s play. That Hedman has factored in on nearly a quarter of their goals since joining the team is an impressive feat. Consider that last NHL season only Brian Campbell and Erik Karlsson managed to be in on 25% of their team’s goals as defensemen and you get the level of brilliance we are dealing with.
Larsson hasn’t been too shabby himself in this context though. Larsson’s 11 points this season mean he has factored in on exactly 25% of his team’s goals this season. I think it’s fair to say that Larsson is being held back a bit by just how poor a team Albany is and that perhaps we should prop up his stats a bit more than we might think. The truth is that the performance of this Albany team is an absolute indictment of New Jersey’s scouting staff and should only reflect more positively on the play of Larsson.
Larsson is Albany’s second leading scorer, just one point behind Jacob Josefson and three points ahead of 2012 Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique. This Albany team is bad and Larsson is doing his best to muddle through the filth.
Given all the contextual information provided, despite the separation in their point totals they are actually much closer to one another in production than you might assume. I’ll remind you once more that sample size is still a factor in all of this. After all, it is much easier to score on 25% of your team’s points over 20 games than it is to do so over 82 games but it would seem that both may have benefitted from these small sample sizes so how can we parse things apart?
I think that if we look at last campaign to see where each guy stands within his own organization we might have a better idea of who is ahead.
Last season Larsson was handed the keys to the Ferrari right away and you can’t really blame the Devils for doing so. It isn’t like they had any better options. The Devils haven’t had an impact puck moving defenseman since Brian Rafalski left in the summer of 2007. So Larsson skated 23:02 minutes per game with 3:57 coming on the power play over his first 19 games but the rewards were few with just one goal and five points scored. Over his next 19 games Larsson was down to skating 20:17 minutes per game with 1:25 coming on the power play. Even with no good options available the Devils still took away Larsson’s power play time.
Then the second half came and Larsson’s new role really started to emerge. Over 10 games in January Larsson skated 22:19 per game but received almost no power play time whatsoever and then over his final 17 games Larsson skated just 17:17 per game again with no power play time. Then through the playoffs Larsson was reduced to skating 16:25 per game.
We shouldn’t be surprised that as the season wore on Larsson wore out. It is logical that a rookie, particularly one used to the shorter seasons played over in Europe, would wear out over his first lengthy NHL year. It also makes sense that as the pressure of the games mounted down the stretch and through the playoffs that the Devils would shift Larsson’s minutes to more experienced players. The reality is that this experience is in no way dissimilar from the one Hedman had as a rookie just two years prior so we will just have to see how New Jersey decides to bring Larsson along. If it’s anything like the Hedman experience then we may have to wait a little while longer before we see Larsson produce.
By his sophomore year, Hedman was averaging 21:00 minutes per game with 1:38 coming on the PP. Then in the playoffs his minutes were increased to 22:16 per game, second on the team behind Eric Brewer. The Lightning didn’t shield Hedman from the spotlight. They thrust him further into it but the production still didn’t arrive yet.
That didn’t shy the Lightning away any. The trend of increasing responsibility continued for Hedman into the 2011-12. Over his first 16 games Hedman skated 22:42 minutes per game with minimal PP time. Over the next 16 games Hedman averaged 22:17 minutes per game again with minimal power play time. Then things took off. Hedman averaged 24:44 per game with 1:27 on the power play over his next 11 games and over his final 16 games he averaged 23:12 per game with 2:28 on the power play even earning the coveted spot as lone defenseman on the Lightning’s top power play unit.
Over those final 27 games combined Hedman scored three goals and 17 points. This is where I remind you about sample sizes but the point is that Hedman has clearly earned more rope within the Lightning organization.
Now a big part of that increase in responsibility is because the Lightning had no other real options. That may have changed now that the Lightning have made some off-season improvements to their blueline. Last week I posited that Matt Carle was not the answer to the Lightning’s need for a point man on the power play but I did suggest that Sami Salo would be a great fit. At the very least I suspect Hedman will have to contend with Salo in whatever training camp we see if there is a season. Of course, that may only last until Salo’s first injury. Still, there are at least two capable bodies in Hedman’s path, which is two more than last season and that’s before you include what the Lightning might have coming up.
Lightning prospect Mark Barberio is coming off a stellar pro season being named the AHL’s top defenseman scoring 61 points in 78 games and is off to another good start once again in the AHL. Barberio might not be ready to make an impact right away but you have to acknowledge that he is looming over any opportunity for Hedman to take the reins full time. You also have to consider Tampa Bay’s 2012 first round selection Slater Koekkoek as another threat but one that is of the long term variety. The point is that as great as it looks that Hedman is building a larger role for himself there are still roadblocks for him.
How about Larsson – if we assume his game has expanded enough over the summer and into this season that he might command another look at a larger role in New Jersey what might stand in his way?
The good news for Larsson is that the Devils did basically nothing this summer, which means they return the same sad-sack defense group that scored a combined 99 points last season and that includes the 14 points that Marek Zidlicky scored while still a member of the Wild. Zidlicky is still a very capable puck mover and when the Devils acquired him they committed to him as their point man 100% giving him all the top unit minutes. In all Zidlicky skated 22:32 minutes per game with 3:48 coming on the power play. His production was only so-so putting up eight points in 22 games but remember that story about sample size and also remember that he did this coming off of injury. Prior to his injury woes the last two seasons Zidlicky had established a solid record of consistency putting up 43, 42 and 43 points in the previous three seasons.
A healthy Zidlicky should resume the role of lone defenseman on the PP because he does fit the role quite perfectly. This is because he is a righty shot and as much as the Devils’ power play runs through Kovalchuk working off the left point it also runs through Elias setting up the play from the right half boards. This leaves both Kovalchuk and Zidlicky as great options for one-timers. It also means Kovalchuk and Zidlicky are interchangeable, which allows for a great deal of flexibility. Larsson too is a right-handed shot so one could see how he would fit in the Devils’ long term plans but with Zidlicky signed for at least this season it is hard to see how he would leap frog his way back into the top power play spot.
Long term there might not be anything in Larsson’s way. Again, please allow me to bring up how abysmal Albany is and how that’s a reflection of how miserable the Devils have been at drafting/developing talent of late. Do you really trust the Devils to draft or develop anyone to contend with Larsson long term? Larsson is going to be a saving grace for this franchise because he’s a player they could not miss on and one they could not possibly screw up. Sure, there are some intriguing options in the Devils’ system that may one day provide some competition for Larsson but most of those options seem a far ways off.
The best such option is probably Jon Merrill a defenseman at the University of Michigan and a former second round pick. The problem is that Merrill has now missed a significant portion of some crucial developmental years first getting suspended for 22 games last season and now missing time this season with a fractured vertebra. It just seems that the odds are starting to pile up against this kid.
Whatever your take on New Jersey’s blue line prospects does any really project to be better than Larsson?
So the best answer right now is that if you want short term results you should probably give Hedman a shot. Based on his development so far it seems safe to say that he is ready to make a real splash. Larsson might be lagging but he’s also two years younger so that makes sense. If you can wait a couple of years you might see a scenario where Larsson has a much better opportunity at the number one power play spot in New Jersey, whereas Hedman may have to fight a little harder for that spot.
Now neither of these teams has shown a great ability to develop defensemen of late but you have to give Tampa Bay a little benefit of the doubt as this new regime under Steve Yzerman hasn’t had much time to work any magic. We know what Lou Lamorello’s regime has done with defensemen of late so I state with a fair amount of confidence that New Jersey’s developmental system worries me much less in terms of creating competition for Larsson.
As for their actual abilities, is either one really that much better? They are both studs, with great size and mobility and instincts and so much more in terms of potential. Who knows where exactly their respective developmental paths will take them. What we do know is that things look better for Hedman right now but it’s easy to see how the path could clear for Larsson in the not so distant future. My gut tells me to take the immediate rewards and go for Hedman in almost any format except a salary cap pool because it isn’t like you’d be giving up that much of a difference in terms of upside.
Recent Cage Matches: