Johan Larsson played 36 games this season. ©2017, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Johan Larsson’s absence hurt Sabres

BUFFALO – When center Johan Larsson suffered two season-ending dislocations New Year’s Eve, the Sabres quietly experienced a critical blow to their playoff hopes.

While the absences of some higher-profile forwards – Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo, for example – garnered more attention, the Sabres struggled to replace Larsson’s tenacious two-way game.

Without Larsson, who dislocated his elbow and wrist, the Sabres became a “different team,” said Marcus Foligno, the Swede’s regular winger on the third line.

“We were definitely different when it came to the centerman position,” Foligno said Monday as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings inside KeyBank Center. “It was something that we had to change, and losing a guy like Larry who’s good on faceoffs, good on penalty kill, can play power play, (is tough). He’s a very, very good player for our team.”

Center depth, of course, is critical, and the Sabres don’t possess very much. Zemgus Girgensons mostly subbed for Larsson early on. Rookie Evan Rodrigues eventually moved into the role, impressing enough to earn his first regular NHL duty.

As Larsson compiled six goals and 11 points this season, he impressed Sabres coach Dan Bylsma.

“At the end of last year (he) really took strides in his game and what he was for our team, and then (he) stepped into that for us at the beginning of this year and through 36 games,” Bylsma said. “You’re talking about another guy you’re missing, and one of the reasons you’re missing (him) is because he was a pretty significant player for us.”

After three seasons of inconsistent play, Larsson, 24, believes he finally established himself as an NHL player in 2016-17.

“Yeah, is the obvious answer,” he said. “It’s a tough league. You got to be good every night. I felt good about my game before it happened.”

Larsson was injured when the Bruins’ Adam McQuaid hit him. He was briefly hospitalized in Boston and later underwent surgery.

Larsson’s rehab has been slow. He said he couldn’t do much at first. He eventually started some lower-body workouts.

His future with the Sabres is unclear. After signing a one-year contract last summer, he will be a restricted free agent again. He could also draw interest from the Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming expansion draft.

“I need a new contract,” Larsson said. “Kind of a big summer for me.”

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