Features | 5/29/2013 1:47:27 PM | Rob Crean
|Forward Johan Larsson
On the morning of Friday, April 5, with the Amerks in the midst of the race for a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs entering the final month of the regular season, help arrived in the form of forward Johan Larsson and goaltender Matt Hackett.
Larsson and Hackett had been acquired earlier in the week from Minnesota in a deal that sent Sabres captain Jason Pominville – one of the top 20 goal-scorers in Amerks history – to the Wild at the NHL trade deadline. Both Larsson and Hackett spent the majority of the 2012-13 season with Minnesota’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, but were up with the big club at the time of the trade. In fact, the two players were both on the ice with the Wild in San Jose for a morning skate prior to that night’s game against the Sharks when news of the deal broke.
The pair of highly-touted prospects left the ice and eventually headed east, first stopping in Houston to gather their belongings before making their way to Rochester. Upon their arrival, both players made an impact in the Amerks’ run to a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs and showed flashes of their great potential during the team’s Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Toronto Marlies.
Here’s a closer look at the two players who joined the Amerks following the NHL trade deadline:
A versatile forward out of Sweden who can play either center or wing, Larsson had an immediate impact after joining the Amerks, scoring a goal in his debut with the team and adding an assist in each of the next two games. When the regular season ended, Larsson had notched four points (1+3) in seven games with the Amerks. In the postseason, Larsson displayed his playmaking abilities by collecting three assists in three games to tie for the team scoring lead.
While the series did not go the Amerks’ way, perhaps the most encouraging sign to emerge from it for the future for both Amerks and Sabres fans was the development of a chemistry between Larsson and fellow rookie Zemgus Girgensons. The two played on a line together and Girgensons led the Amerks with three goals during the playoffs, all of which were assisted on by Larsson.
In addition, two of Larsson’s three assists in the regular season with the Amerks came on goals by Girgensons, meaning that five of Larsson’s six assists went to the Latvia native. Girgensons was one of Buffalo’s two first round draft picks last summer, and his performance during the playoffs while playing alongside Larsson could be a sign of things to come for the organization.
Prior to joining the Amerks in April, Larsson played in 62 AHL games for Houston, recording 37 points on 15 goals and 22 assists in his first season of North American pro hockey. He also played one game for Minnesota, making his NHL debut in a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 17. He re-joined his teammates in Houston shortly thereafter, but was recalled to the Wild again on April 2. The next day, he was traded to Buffalo and sent to Rochester to help in the playoff push.
Before making his pro debut in North America during the 2012-13 season, Larsson had a highly successful year in his native Sweden. First, he captained Team Sweden to the gold medal in the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, helping Sweden capture its first World Junior gold since 1981. Later in the year, Larsson was named Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League after notching 36 points (12+24) in 49 games. Then, he capped off a year to remember when he helped his Brynas team win the Swedish Elite League championship by scoring 10 points (2+8) in 16 playoff games.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Larsson was originally selected by Minnesota in the 2nd round (54th overall) of the 2010 Entry Draft, the same draft that netted his current Amerks teammates Mark Pysyk (23rd), Jerome Gauthier-Leduc (68th), Kevin Sundher (75th) and Matt MacKenzie (83rd).
Hackett, a native of London, Ontario, joined the Amerks in a different role than did Larsson. With veteran netminder David Leggio already entrenched as Rochester’s starting goalie and in the midst of a career year, Hackett came on board and solidified the position to give Rochester perhaps the most formidable goaltending duo in the AHL over the final month of the season.
It was particularly vital to have Hackett in the mix during the last three weeks of the season which saw the Amerks play three consecutive “three-in-three” weekends. Hackett was given one start in each three-game set, and he performed beautifully, leading the Amerks to wins in all three outings while posting a 1.62 goals against average and a .955 save percentage. In the postseason, Hackett started Game 2 for the Amerks at Toronto and stopped 18 of 20 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Marlies.
Postseason play was nothing new to Hackett, who helped lead Houston all the way to the Calder Cup Finals as a rookie in 2011, where the Aeros eventually fell to the Binghamton Senators in six games. Hackett started all 24 playoff games for Houston that spring – a franchise record – and posted a 14-10 record with a 2.50 goals against average and a .903 save percentage.
The following season, Hackett returned to the Aeros but also got his first taste of NHL action. His first two appearances with Minnesota earned him NHL Second Star of the Week honors for the week ending Dec. 12, 2011. Hackett picked up a win in each of his first two NHL games while posting a 1.01 goals against average and a .974 save percentage in wins over San Jose and Los Angeles as he stopped 76 of 78 shots on goal. He finished his first stint in the NHL with a 3-6-0 record with a 2.38 GAA and a .922 save percentage.
Hackett would play one more NHL game this season and was on recall to the Wild at the time of his trade to the Sabres. By the end of his third pro season, he sported a 65-53-13 career AHL record in 135 games to go along with a 2.45 GAA, a .915 save percentage and three shutouts.
The 77th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, Hackett was chosen by Minnesota the same year that Buffalo selected Connor Knapp, another member of Buffalo’s stable of young netminders. The 2009 Draft also saw the Sabres select four other players who suited up for the Amerks in 2012-13: Brayden McNabb (66th), Marcus Foligno (104th), Knapp (164th) and Maxime Legault (194th).