TRAVERSE CITY — While Detroit Red Wings prospects engaged in a protracted 3-on-1 drill on one half of the rink during Saturday morning’s practice at Centre Ice Arena, Filip Larsson stayed in net at the other end of the ice, fending off shot after shot from Red Wings goaltending coach Jeff Salajko.
Moving side-to-side and repeatedly steering away blasts from the slot, Larsson moved closer to game action as he works his way back from an injured groin.
With established NHL veterans Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier slated to man the twine for the Red Wings again in 2019-20, the Sweden-born Larsson knows he isn’t necessarily battling for a roster spot on the parent club this year. But as Howard enters his 14th season with the Wings, and Bernier heads into his 12th NHL campaign, the 21-year-old Larsson may well be the team’s long-sought goalie of the future.
“He’s one of our top goaltending prospects, if not the top prospect,” said Salajko, who is in his third year coaching the Wings’ backstops. “He’s not a lock — none of these young guys are — but what we know and have seen from him has been really encouraging.”
A sixth-round draft pick (167th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, Larsson played one year of college hockey at the University of Denver, leading the Pioneers to the NCAA Frozen Four as a freshman, before signing an entry-level contract with Detroit in April.
While he might not be focused on his own long-term prospectus, Larsson sidled up to Howard after inking his deal, trying to soak up all he could from the former NHL All-Star and Calder Trophy runner-up.
“I got to work with Jimmy a lot this summer,” Larsson explained. “I tried to watch him and see some of the details in how he plays the puck. He’s had a great career and has seen a lot of things. He’s also a really hard worker even in practice, and I tried to take some of that too. Hopefully, these things will also help me when I get an opportunity.”
Larsson’s initial opportunity to showcase his abilities against NHL-caliber competition is likely to come next week when the Red Wings open their 21st training camp in Traverse City. Salajko says the team is expected to employ seven netkeeps during the camp.
“I’ve said it many times: the jump from college to pros is the biggest leap — more so for goalies than skaters,” said Salajko, who spent three seasons coaching the position at Ohio State University before joining the Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids in 2013. “The game is so much faster. Let’s face it: You’re now playing against full-grown men who are faster and bigger and stronger, and you’re playing with the trapezoid (limits where a goaltender can play the puck). It’s definitely an adjustment for anyone. You don’t see many guys like Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller, who can come right from college and play in the NHL right away. Even Jimmy had four years in the American League before he came up.”
Larsson was quick to recognize the difference.
“I could pretty much tell right away,” he said. “From the first shot, you can see that these guys just have a harder, faster shot. That means I have to be quicker and stronger, and those are some of the things we are working on.”
His lone season at Denver was an unqualified success. Larsson went 13-6-3, and posted a sterling 1.95 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, and recorded a pair of shutouts for the Pioneers in the NCAA tournament. Salajko says his instincts are evident even as they hone the nuances of his game.
“He’s a talented young goalie, no question. We’re working on getting him wider, a little more body control, and his hands — catching the puck a little cleaner.”
Larsson, for his part, is also eyeing an improvement in handling the shots he doesn’t snare.
“Right now, I am really working on rebound control,” he explained. “My hands and working with the stick, they are already better than last year, and those are things we’ll continue to work on to get better.”
While there is no established timetable for Larsson or another Wings goaltending prospect to assume the team’s crease, the short-term goal is to get him ready for both camps at Centre Ice. Larsson says he’s nearing live action.
“The groin is pretty much at a hundred percent. I’m taking it a bit easy right now, getting it stronger. The Red Wings have such a great training staff, and it’s really gotten a lot better even this week.”
The Wings’ lineage of stalwart Swedes is not lost on Larsson, either.
“Everyone back in Sweden knows and follows the Red Wings,” he said. “Every Swede knows about their history. They have had some great (Swedish) players for many years. It’s exciting to be with an organization like this.”
Larsson and the rest of the eight-team NHL prospects will continue to battle for the Matthew Wuest Memorial Cup through Tuesday’s championship game at Centre Ice before the Red Wings training camp opens on Sept. 13. He says he has enjoyed the experience thus far.
“It’s a great camp and the fans here are really into it,” he said. “There are a lot of great players, great prospects, and the hockey is really fun to watch.”