Johan Larsson is one of the longest-tenured Sabres. ©2018, Hickling Images

Poor season forced Sabres’ Johan Larsson to change

BUFFALO – Instead of talking about Johan Larsson’s rough season, Sabres coach Phil Housley chose to praise the Swedish center for the transformations he has made.

Larsson struggled mightily in 2017-18, enduring his worst NHL campaign. How bad was he? His wretched minus-30 was the fourth-worst rating among NHL forwards. He scored two of his career-low four goals into empty nets.

But Larsson, 26, accepted Housley and general manager Jason Botterill’s challenge to change following last season’s embarrassing 31st-place finish.

“Regardless of the first year, I see him now, I think he’s had three really good days (of training camp),” Housley said after the Sabres scrimmaged Sunday morning inside HarborCenter. “He’s come into camp in really good shape, probably the best shape that he’s been in. So it’s good to say he took the words in the right way at the end of the year. But he’s been really, really good so far in camp.”

He looks a lot like the Larsson from two or three years ago, when he morphed into an aggressive, two-way pivot with a knack for scoring timely goals. Then last year, after returning from season-ending elbow and wrist injuries, he looked lost.

Suddenly, given the Sabres’ new depth up front, Larsson is fighting for a roster spot.

The team’s other three established centers – Jack Eichel and newcomers Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka – aren’t going anywhere. The Sabres also have Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps the NHL’s top center prospect, and Rasmus Asplund, another talented youngster, gunning for roster spots.

Someone could get squeezed out or moved to another position.

“I got to be on my toes every day, prepared, battling, compete every day,” Larsson said. “(There are) so many good players here, so you got to be ready to go every day. It’s kind of fun, because it brings everything out of you.”

The 5-foot-11, 198-pound Larsson has experienced just about everything but winning since the Sabres acquired him from the Minnesota Wild on April 3, 2013. Having debuted Oct. 4, 2013, he’s one of three Sabres remaining from former GM Darcy Regier’s tenure. Winger Zemgus Girgensons and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen are the others.

In three of Larsson’s five seasons, the Sabres have finished dead last.

“It’s been tough, it’s not been easy,” Larsson said of the losing. “But it’s that kind of environment we were in, so you got to perform. We haven’t done that in a couple years. It feels different now and everyone’s feeling way better.”

Larsson’s feeling so good he has started showcasing signs of his old form.

“He’s tenacious, he gets underneath your skin,” Housley said of what Larsson does at his best. “I just feel that his upper body’s gotten a lot stronger, (he has) a lot more power in his lower body … he’s first on the puck. He’s a great forechecker.”

Larsson’s versatility should help him in his roster battle. He can also play the wing and has moved up and down the lineup at times during his career.

Remember, late in 2014-15, the Sabres’ second tank season, Larsson was the No. 1 center. If he makes the team this year, he would likely be a fourth-liner.

“I’m kind of good in the checking role, for sure,” Larsson said. “But I can always move up and down in the lines, so I’m kind of all around. You always want to be a guy who produces more than you do last year. …

“I want to start over and have a fresh, good year here.”

He added: “It definitely feels way better. I feel just coming in, seeing the guys, everyone, the excitement. It’s a different feeling.”

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Not surprisingly, first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin looked impressive during Sunday’s scrimmage, pinching in to score two nifty goals.

“His timing’s really impeccable,” Housley said of the slick defenseman. “He jumps into the play at the right times, and when he beats a guy, he moves the puck right away and gets it up ice. Overall, I just like the way he’s developed so far in this camp.”

Housley did not say if Dahlin will play in tonight’s preseason opener in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.

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Housley said defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Conor Sheary missed the scrimmage for maintenance.

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