Red Wings goaltending prospect Filip Larsson engaged in a very, very lengthy interview with Hockeysverige.se’s Rasmus Kagstrom this morning, and here’s a rough translation of the monster interview:
Filip Larsson: Many days were really hard
Former World Junior Championship goaltender Filip Larsson discusses his autumn in Almtuna, his difficult debut season as a professional in North America, the stomach problems that kept him away from the game for two months–and the details that will take his game to the next level.
For a while now, Filip Larsson has stayed with his mother out in Saltsjo-Boo, just outside Stockholm. The 22-year-old goaltender has spent parts of the summer training in Uppsala, where a friend was so kind as to lend his apartment while the schools were on break. But now that schools have started, Larsson has kindly been able to stay with his mother.
“But I’m not complaining. The food is served on the dinner table,” says Larsson, and laughs.
This week, all the paperwork was arranged, and the 22-year-old will be able to start with Almtuna in the Allsvenskan. During the spring and summer, Larsson was uncertain as to whether he would play games this autumn.
Now he can breathe a sigh of relief.
“It’s been uncertain for a long time now as to when everything will start over there [in North America], so it’s safe and very nice to have everything in place now. It’s been a bit unclear whether I would be allowed to play in Sweden, so it’s clear that it feels quite good to know that I will be able to play some games and get good practices this autumn. I’ve trained with Almtuna for two or three weeks already, and everything’s worked out flawlessly.
A big reason why Larsson ended up with the Uppsala team is coach Mattias Zackrisson. The 34-year-old coach coached Larsson during his junior season with Djurgarden, and he’s an assistant coach under Robert Kimby in Almtuna. It was through Zackrisson that Larsson’s first contract with Almtuna was made.
“At the beginning of the summer, I called ‘Zacke’ and asked him if there was any opportunity to practice with Almtuna. Then I had no intentions other than to just practice until I would go over to the U.S. again. But then I also thought that the AHL season would start a little earlier than it turned out to be,” says Larsson.
“When I found out that it wouldn’t start until December, or even later, the opportunity arose to play games as well. But the reason why it became Almtuna is largely from “Zacke” and that I heard from him. Without him, I probably would not have ended up in Almtuna. And Uppsala is right near Stockholm as well, so it’s easy to go back and forth.
Were there any other teams in the picture?
“No, Almtuna was the only team I heard from, at least. When it started to open up to loans from North America, I was open most of the time, as long as I could play in games. But since I’d been with Almtuna ever since they went on the ice, it was of course where I had the greatest desire to play.
NEVER PLAYED SENIOR HOCKEY IN SWEDEN
Having completed the loan agreement with Almtuna means that a large burden has been lifted from the 22-year-old’s shoulders. During periods in the spring and summer, he feared that there would be no games at all until December.
“I’ve been walking around and have been insecure all the time since this broke out,” says Larsson, who refers to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve been unsure if hockey would even be able to start there in December, when it’s thought that the AHL and other leagues will start. You don’t know until it actually starts.”
“So I wanted to get things resolved for a long time. Of course I walked around and was worried.”
For the Swedish hockey audience, Filip Larsson is perhaps an unknown quantity. Three years ago, when Larsson was 19 years old, he left Sweden and Djurgarden’s junior team to play with the Tri-City Storm in the American junior league. The following season was a successful one in college with the University of Denver, and then he signed his three-year entry-level contract with the Red Wings last season.
This upcoming autumn in Almtuna will thus be the first time that Larsson earns the chance to play senior hockey in Sweden.
“It will of course be very different because it’s a different size of rink and a different type of hockey that’s played here in Sweden compared to over there,” says Larsson. “But as soon as you get into everything, I’m convinced that it will all go well. I’ve done well in practice and I feel that it’s a good level in the Allsvenskan, but it’s not better than over there, so I feel safe. Confident in myself. I know what I’m good at and what I can do, and if I get to play a few games on a big rink, it will go great.”
In Almtuna, Larsson will form a pair of goaltenders with veteran Erik Hanses, who before this season was brought in to the Uppsala club from the Allsvenskan competitor Modo.
So far, there’s no specific plan as to which games the two netminders will play in.
“We haven’t talked about it at all, in fact.”
“I guess it will be like a normal goaltending situation, where the hottest player gets the chance to guard the net. But it is of course up to Almtuna I’m grateful to be able to train and play, but it’s clear that I’m hear to play games as well.”
GOT CHANCES AGAINST KANE AND TOEWS
Behind him is Filip Larsson’s first professional season in North America. The 22-year-old netminder entered last season with a high level of self-confidence after a very strong season in the college league with the University of Denver, where he was able to post a save percentage of .932 and a goals-against average of 1.95 in the 22 games where he guarded the Pioneers’ net.
The season could not get off to a much better start, either, as he got the chance to play in North America a little earlier to practice for over a month of goaltending training with the Red Wings’ experienced goaltender Jimmy Howard.
“I had the opportunity to practice with Howard at the end of July and the whole of August before training camp got started, so I got a really nice start over there. It was me, him and the goaltending coaches who drove at full speed every day I saw and learned a lot from him (Howard).”
Larsson started the season at Detroit’s training camp, where, in addition to training with the NHL stars of the Red Wings, he also got the opportunity to play in a couple of the teams exhibition games before the NHL season.
“I got to play half the game against Chicago, which had its regular season team with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and the ‘old men’ in front of a crowded arena in Chicago.”
“It was special…Awesome. We lost 2-1, but it was of course a cool experience. I didn’t really have time to think about which players I was playing against, but it did strike me afterwards when my friends heard about it,” Larsson laughs.
In addition to the game against Chicago, the 22-year-old also got to feel the hot air in Toronto.
“I played a period in the away game against Toronto, which, like Chicago, had its entire regular season team with Auston Matthews in the lead. So I had two tough games, but it was a great experience. It’s clear that you get a small bloody tooth for the future when you get to play in front of two packed arenas against two classic teams that play with their best rosters.”
SENT TO THE ECHL
Larsson stayed through a couple of rounds of cuts at training camp, but in early October, he was told that he would start the season in Grand Rapids. There, Larsson began with two strong efforts before things slowly but surely began to crack.
“I ended up in a position that I was right above, when I was sort of cast as second fiddle behind (Calvin) Pickard in Grand Rapids. I was set aside, something I had not been for a very long time before that.”
“But at the same time, it’s something that you have to learn to handle as a goaltender, especially at the professional level over there in North America. There you have to start from that position and work your way up.”
After a total of seven games in the AHL during the fall, where his game began to sway more and more, Larsson received the message in early December that he would pack his bags and join the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.
Games in the grandparents’ league were not directly what was in Larsson’s vision for the season. But, according to him, it was exactly what he needed.
“Yes, so it was something I really wanted for myself. When I didn’t really get a chance in Grand Rapids and was a second fiddle, I felt just as good. Once I got the chance in the AHL, I wasn’t sure if it was really true, so then I felt that it would only do me good to be sent down.”
“So when it happened, I didn’t see it at all as something negative. It was what I needed, here and there.”
Larsson about the stomach problems that kept him away for two months
But not far into his stay with Toledo, things started to go awry for Larsson. After only three games, the 22-year-old was forced to take a break for almost two months.
“I started to have problems with my stomach and I became very nauseous in December. It wasn’t like I was sick or anything. I actually don’t know what it was. It was something really, really scary, anyway. It kept me away for almost two months. Many days it was really hard. As soon as I was on the ice, it said, “No.” But there was no muscle damage or anything so it was good that way.
Larsson has also been plagued with injury problems over the past couple of years. At the end of his first season in North America with Tri-City in the USHL, Larsson sustained a serious groin injury that would hold him back well into his college year with Denver. For Hockeysverige.se, Larsson has previously told about the fear that injury meant that his groin moved eleven millimeters, according to himself.
“Detroit thought that the injury would heal during the summer, but I felt that when I came back to the ice and would start practicing with Denver in the college league that, ‘No,damn it does not feel right.’ I could not play at 100% and they made a small operation on my groin.”
“After one or two months, everything was fine again, and after that I haven’t had any problems at all. It healed well, which is good.”
After Larsson recovered from his stomach problems during the winter months, he managed to lay another seven games before the season ended in March due to the current coronavirus pandemic.
“Then it started to go away and I had time to play in seven more games in the ECHL before the season ended. So I had time to come back at the end of the season in a good way. But to sum up the entire season, I didn’t prove what I can do. I think I am much better than I showed and have to prove.”
“Then it’s clear–playing time–I was not allowed to play in so many games, and it was difficult to show what I’ve got, and it was tough.”
What lessons can you take with you from last season?
“I have thought very much. Especially when I encountered some setbacks, that’s probably when I learned my biggest lessons. I’ve learned that it’s not possible to dig into bad games, you have to recover immediately.”
“Then I learned quite quickly what works and what does not work, purely in terms of play. It’s useful to have those insights. The bad also brings something good with it.”
“If people look at statistics from the outside, they can also look at my numbers and say that I had a season that went to hell, but for me it was a season where I learned many lessons and a season that I will benefit from in the future.”
CAREFULLY WITH THE DETAILS
After the end of the season, Larsson also spent a lot of time with the goaltending team in Detroit, where they turned and turned every little stone to find details in Larsson’s game that would help him to take the next step in his development.
“It’s almost too nerdy to go into the details,” laughs Larsson.
“I sat a bit too much toward the posts, and played in the RVH (Reverse Vertical-Horizontal) when I really might have been able to play standing when pucks were deep down in the zone. Then I ended up a little too far into the net in some situations. If I come out of the goal in a slightly different way, I will be able to cut off angles better. I lacked a certain aggressiveness in my play.”
“Then we have probably talked about that I should stand more on my feet and trust more that you should get to places standing, rather than sitting on your knees. Have a little more patience on your feet, quite simply.”
You also worked on your game with the stick, I guess?
“Yes, indeed. It’s also a big change when you come to professional hockey as compared to the other leagues I’d played in. You use the stick much more in senior hockey, and it’s really important as a goaltender to master that part of the game. You get away with it a bit in the USHL and college, but in the AHL and ECHL you do not. Then you have to go out every time and stop the dump-ins and distribute pucks to the defensemen.”
“Then we also talked about working a lot with more active hands. It’s very important when you are up against good shooters. The pucks are a little closer to the posts here.”
Since the season came to a quick and less than fun end already in March, much of Larsson’s gunpowder has been put into the above-mentioned problem areas, but also a lot in the physical part, where the 22-year-old had an unusual amount of time to prepare his body for the season.
Much of the summer has, as I said, also been spent on the ice with Almtuna, which makes him feel more than ready to tackle the upcoming season.
“I’ve had a long time to prepare for what’s to come. For those who are still over there in the U.S., it will be a fairly different preseason, where they may not play games until December, but here for me in Sweden and Almtuna, it will almost be like usual, as the season usually starts in early October over there.”
“In this way, it will be quite similar to the normal situation, which is good. Hopefully I will have time to play in some games until the season starts over there. I have had a lot of time to prepare for this season and it only feels positive.”
It’s important to remember: his time with Almtuna is only temporary. When the NHL camps in North America start, Larsson and the other NHL loans will go back to North America to participate in the tough training camps to try and break into their respective NHL teams.
But Larsson does not see any NHL game in this upcoming season as realistic. He is slowly rushing toward his NHL dream.
“As I understand it, it looks like I will start the season in the ECHL. If that happens, my goal will just be to play as well as possible there, to somehow force myself up to the AHL again.”
“Then I will stay there for the rest of the season. I want to get up and do it so well that I deserve to stay there. I want to show a little more what I can do, I do not think I got to do that last season. So hopefully I get to play in a few more games and show that I can help the team win, instead of just being a guy that you throw in when you have to rest the starting netminder. I want to show everyone over there that I’m more than a reserve. I want to compete with (Calvin) Pickard who in advance is pronounced the starting goaltender.”
“And somewhere in the back of my mind is of course the dream of the NHL But I’m only 22 years old. I have to be realistic, too. I was mostly down in the ECHL last year, so my number one goal this season is to play in the AHL and show that I can be a good AHL goaltender before I start looking further.”